December 24, 2011

Prison Tattoos

The creation and display of tattoos within a prison environment is often used to signify gang membership or advertise an inmate’s standing within the criminal community.  Used as a form of code amongst inmates they are often filled with hidden meanings and symbols.  Because of the information that can be relayed in a tattoo the law enforcement services have compiled an extensive prison tattoo database.  Tattooing in prison is not an ideal environment as the artists often lack proper equipment or any form of sterilisation for the tools that they do have, making having one a risk to a recipient’s health.  The act of providing or receiving a prison tattoo also carries with it the risk of further punishment if caught.

Resources and Payment

Whilst it is illegal in the United States to receive a prison tattoo it doesn’t stop the process occurring.  As inmates do not have access to the necessary approved equipment they have become extremely inventive in crafting what they need from materials that they do have access to.  Prison authorities in the United States have confiscated tattooing equipment made from mechanical pencils, staples, radio transistors, paper clips and even guitar strings.

They also need to manufacture their own ink.  Where the ink from a disposable pen may seem a reasonable stand in, inks have also been concocted from soot mixed with shampoo, melted plastic or Styrofoam cups.  The prison tattoo artist takes a huge risk providing this service for his clients and whilst cash is not always an option, they will often receive payment in the form of cigarettes, tobacco or phone privileges.


Many gangs incorporate numbers and symbols in their designs as reflections of the gang names and networks, whereas motifs like spider webs and teardrops can be used to represent the length of their sentences and the family they leave on the outside.  Teardrop shaped droplets of blood are often used to symbolise the number of lives an inmate has been responsible for cutting short, or the number of charges against them.  Religious beliefs are often displayed in the form of a tattoo, especially by those belonging to the more extremist groups and cults by the use of swastikas or a simple ‘100%’ tattoo which is popular amongst white supremacist groups, believing it is their indicator of racial purity.

Health Risks

Without the proper equipment or means of sterilisation the prison tattoo carries with it a high risk of infection.  Diseases like HIV/Aids and hepatitis can be passed from one client to the next through the practice of sharing needles.  The very poor quality of the makeshift inks used can sometimes cause permanent scarring, even blood poisoning.  Those inmates found to be in receipt of a new tattoo, which is characterised by redness and swelling of the skin at the site of the tattoo are processed and charged, whilst those individuals found to be in possession of tattooing equipment receive punishments like solitary confinement, loss of privileges and confiscation of equipment.


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