While certainly not every person with a tattoo has done time, you can bet most every person who has done time has a tattoo. Tattoos are synonymous with prison culture. However, there origin in the prison system is far from the status symbol they are today. For centuries, tattoos were used as a means of identification, and to mark the accused so that everyone who saw their ink would know they were and, many times, the nature of their crimes. In Nazi Germany, tattoos were used to permanently mark the Jews in concentration camps.
In modern times, prisoners tattoo each other to show gang affiliation, to symbolize their standing in the prison community, to make themselves look more intimidating to their enemies or just to pass the time. Tattoo artists may use their services to barter for privileges, favors or contraband.
Traditional tattoo equipment is not allowed inside the prison, but such rules are only a small bump in the road for those who are serious about their ink. Almost anything with some kind of motor can be used to make a tattoo gun. Electric shavers, sewing needle, guitar strings and syringes are commonly used materials.
As you can imagine, there’s not an over abundance of tattoo ink flowing through the prison system, thus prison tattoos are characterized by long, thin, black or blue lines. Carbon produced from liquefying any number of substances is a common substitute for ink. Melting rubber soles off of shoes produces a good that can be thinned out with water, and the soot collected from burning candles can be mixed with water for the same purpose. Perhaps the simplest supplies used are a sewing needle and ink from an ordinary writing pen. The absence of a motor will make the process much slower, but quieter and more discrete.
If inmates weren’t affiliated with a gang before going to jail, chances are good the will be before they get out, if they ever do. Gangs serve many functions in a prisoner’s life. They’re a source of protection, status and offer a sense of belonging in a world that’s very much about being out for oneself. Law enforcement officials pay special attention to tattoos because they’re ideal for forensic and identification purposes. They are also indisputable proof of a person’s gang involvement.
As tattoos in general become more popular in general society, prison-style tattoos are turning up on a sect of tattoo subculture that has never spent time behind bars. A prison-like tattoo in anything but black or blue is more than likely a fake, as is a tattoo that consists of more than a single color. Prison tattoos are heavy with symbolism. Some are pretty obvious and well know, such as the swastika, but some appear to be innocent. For example, a bluebird is commonly associated with the Aryan Brotherhood, a notorious white supremacy gang. A spider web, particularly on the neck or skull labels its owner as an IV drug user. If you’re considering getting a tattoo inspired by this style, make sure to do your research carefully to avoid sending a message you don’t really mean.
A significant percentage of the prison population carry with them a reminder of the rough lifestyle that landed them there in the first place: disease. Reckless sexual practices and drug use take their toll on the body, and are often associated with diseases, such as AIDS and Hepatitis C, which can be spread through contact with infected blood. Because the process of tattooing breaks the skin to deposit ink, it may be a factor in spreading disease.