View Full Version : Prison tattoos

12-12-2006, 04:12 AM
My latest WIP's protagonist has done time in prison. As he has something of an artistic background, it seems natural that he tried doing a few tattoos... and as it so happened, managed to do them reasonably well.

However, I don't really know that much about prison tattoos. What do they use for a needle and ink? What sort of designs do prisones usually have done? How common are health complications?

Little Red Barn
12-12-2006, 04:20 AM
From my hubby, a law enforcement official...
Teardrop under eye.
LOVE HATE spelled across fingers.
Needles that have been snuck or mailed in, and ink is commonly taken from a pen.
Most common says my hubby.
hope this helps kimmi

12-12-2006, 04:31 AM
I'll second the teardrop under the eye. That can represent people you've killed, or time done. At leat this is what I've heard. My dad had one on his face that was from Mexican prison-by force. But the inmates were stopped before they finished so it turned out as an indistinguishable blob.

Histry Nerd
12-12-2006, 04:53 AM
I don't know about needles or inks used, but I've heard spiderwebs on the elbows are the symbol of a white supremacist prison gang.

Otherwise, I would think prison tattoos would tend to be large and/or numerous--a way for the convicts to show how tough they are by taking the pain, and to rebel by wearing the evidence of contraband where the guards can see it.

12-12-2006, 05:26 AM
There is a very intricate language to prison tats. Tats say everything about the prisoner and they can vary.

Basic tattoos - prison gang (see first link below for some representations.) In some places, especially in foreign countries like Russia, tattoos are also used mark the person for death. They hold the person down and tattoo a symbol on their forehead or neck (visible) that marks them for death.

Spider webs - symbolizes feeling trapped
Hourglasses - symbolize time in
Teardrop - killed someone, or they lost their very close brother (I've also heard it represented time in.)

According to my source, the way tattoos are done depends upon the prison. Tattoo ink can be made from burned paper. They grind it up and pee in it to make ink. Lower security prisons can use india ink, if they can get it.

Tattoo guns – guitar string, walkman motor, pen body, and electrical tape (or whatever tape they can get their hands on.)

Symbols - http://www.adl.org/hate_symbols/prison_tattoos.asp

Some interesting information and pics - http://www.foto8.com/issue01/dprisontattoos/prisontattoos1.html

This is a year old, but interesting stats of top tattoos of Missouri inmates - http://blogs.kansascity.com/crime_scene/2005/09/top_tattoos_of_.html

The above three I did quick searches on, so I don't know about the information source. The first link should be fine, and what I read of the second it's dead on. I have no clue about the third link.

(Please excuse my grammar, this was written quickly. : Let me know if you need more info. HTH))

ETA - Common health complications: Hepatitis, AIDS, any blood borne infection. Then there are issues with tats healing properly and infections with the tattoo itself.

12-12-2006, 05:38 AM
Here's something about prison tattoos-- if they catch a guy with a fresh tat he will have time added to his sentence. It's strictly against the rules in almost every prison. They will also take a picture of a guy's tat to add to his record. Yes guys and girls get tattooed in prison all the time but a con takes measures to try to hide it. For example, my former b/f who was in medium security would write me before he got a tat and tell me not to visit him. They strip search the guys after visits and if the guards would have seen a fresh tat with scabs on it, they would have busted him. (After it heals usually the guards, with more pressing issues on their minds, don't notice it.) After a couple of weeks or so then it was ok for me to visit him again.

Also the machines most commonly used to make the tattoo gun-- the most used of these is a cassette tape player-- are sometimes banned. Guys who can have personal possessions in prison will often get tape players and tear them apart to make tattoo guns. The warden knows this and so guards are advised to keep a watch over certain individuals who have these things.

In maximum security prison, it's not uncommon for inmates to be denied almost every possession except for a blanket and one set of clothing. Of course they will find ways to get tattooed anyway, right? Human ingenuity at work.

I've read articles about prison tats in "Tattoo" magazine but I don't know if that is in publication anymore.

Scarring is becoming a popular form of decoration in prison now because it doesn't require as much equipment.

I hope this was helpful!

Sandi LeFaucheur
12-12-2006, 02:55 PM
I was told by a MRI technician that tatoos done in prison (or third-world countries) contain heavy metals. Therefore, if you have one and have an MRI, the magnet in the machine literally rips the ink from your body.

I suppose it's one way to get rid of a tatoo, but it sounds excruciating!

12-12-2006, 07:58 PM
I've read articles about prison tats in "Tattoo" magazine but I don't know if that is in publication anymore. It's still in publication. :D That is one I like to pick up when I have the extra funds.

12-12-2006, 11:07 PM
The only tattoo kit I saw seized in a "shakedown" was a pencil with a sharpened paper clip adhered to the end. I asked one of the deputies what they were using for ink because pens were not allowed, and he said coffee grounds. I don't know if that's true, but that's my two cents.

I used to work in a jail. The guards are usually too busy to check for fresh tattoos, but if they find contraband, good time is taken away from the inmates.

12-12-2006, 11:36 PM
Some prison tats are made from melted trays. Another thing about spider-web tattoos is they are usually on the elbow of white supremest gangs. If there is a spider in the web, that means they've killed someone. Latino gangs tend to be more religious and Jesus, or some variation of Christ, is tattooed near their hearts.

12-12-2006, 11:38 PM
It's amazing how resourceful people can be.

12-13-2006, 12:08 AM
Another ink used is to burn magazines, grind up the ash, and add water.

12-13-2006, 12:19 AM
As for complications...yes infections are common with prison tats. It can vary from a minor irritation to a serious infection that requires antibiotics. (and destroys the tat) There are also what are called flash artists in prison they are artists who specialize in tat work, so the designs could be more elaborate but as has been mentioned it is strictly against the rules so they are usually kept simple out of unsupervised time constraints. Also used for ink is cigarett ash.

12-13-2006, 01:25 AM
Hepatitis C is rampant is prison and tattooing is one of the ways people are infected.

12-13-2006, 08:07 AM
Love/Hate is not the only thing tattooed across the knuckles.

Today I saw two people who have their 'street names' tattooed on the knuckles.

A simple pen with a staple can be used to create tattoos (being a jail where we don't allow motorized things like cassette players or anything else - we get low-tech stuff!)

There's also a variation of the teardrop which is just a simple 'dot' or, in various locations, a pyramid made of three dots. Most designs for prison tatts are easy to spot because of a lack of coloration.

My favorite prison tatt that I've seen though was a guy who had a bullet wound done on the back of his head. There's also another guy with a dashed line across his throat with the words "cut here". I once asked him if he was every worried someone would take him up on the offer.

As has been mentioned, tattooing in prison is fraught with dangers, the least of which is additional time or the loss of good time - the health complications can be extremely deadly as well.

I've also been told that the spiderwebs on the elbow symbolize time...the more 'strands' on the width of the web, the longer they were in. Kind of like how police officers have the service hashes on their long sleeve uniforms.

My father's daughter had a really crappy 'Snoopy' done on her arm while in jail - which she said was made from a mechanical pencil, a staple (stupid attorneys are FOREVER sending in staples!) and pen ink. And yeah, whoever did it was a really terrible artist.


Soccer Mom
12-15-2006, 05:40 AM
Tatts can signify anything from having killed, gang affiliation, names of loved ones, etc...

Dots are a form of gang identification.

Ol' Fashioned Girl
12-17-2006, 06:09 AM
I was told by a MRI technician that tatoos done in prison (or third-world countries) contain heavy metals. Therefore, if you have one and have an MRI, the magnet in the machine literally rips the ink from your body.

I suppose it's one way to get rid of a tatoo, but it sounds excruciating!

I think the Mythbusters busted that as an Urban Legend on one of their shows.

Sandi LeFaucheur
12-17-2006, 07:12 AM
I think the Mythbusters busted that as an Urban Legend on one of their shows.

Hmmm...I wonder, then, why they ask on MRI consent forms if you have any tatoos? (I don't, so I can have MRIs with impunity, but that fascinated me. I imagined the tatoo flying out of the patient's skin and sticking to the inside of the tube.)

I'm going to have to do some research on this. Yaaay--research!http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/images/icons/icon10.gif

Edit: I found the answer! http://tattoo.about.com/cs/tatfaq/a/mri_scan.htm

Doctor Shifty
12-18-2006, 02:28 PM
However, I don't really know that much about prison tattoos. What do they use for a needle and ink? What sort of designs do prisones usually have done? How common are health complications?

I work in a prison and see their handiwork often.

Here in Australia they use anything with a point, but if they can find a motor from something to give it an oscillation that is preferred. Walkman motors, mobile phone motors (some have them for silent pulse ringing), even the motor from a small desk fan will be fair game.

The goal is to get the pin oscilatting several times a second but with amplitude of only a few millimetres. Many home-made prison tatt guns have a spring built in, perhaps a twist of metal or plastic, to level out the movement like the shock-absorbers on a car level out the bumps.

Ink can be anything with colour. I know an inmate who does his own tatts with a sharpened staple and ballpen ink. He does designs on his hands and arms, legs, chest, left and right handed with equal skill. Because ballpen fades in a few years he does something else over it.

Designs are limitless, but there are lots of gang tattoos. Sometimes these are merely a pattern of dots, each one representing the next person in the 'family'. These seemingly simple gang patterns mean a very serious involvement in gang crime. We get Maori inmates and their tattoos are often gang related but very ornate. They tattoo one or two thighs almost down to the knee. They sometimes tattoo one side of the face in gang designs - making it impossible to hide the gang identity - there is no way out.

Many designs here are celtic knotwork or graphic bands around the biceps about an inch or two wide. The skin inside the biceps is very sensitive and those who have the inner part of their bicep inked are demonstrating their ability to take the pain. Many men do not have the complete band.

Names of girlfriends, wives, and increasingly of children are very common. Hearts, roses, daggers, skulls with snakes through the eye sockets are common. Indigenous Americans with feather head-dress are surprisingly common. Marijuana leaves seem to be not so popular as they were twenty years ago. We get the tear drop under the eye, and sometimes dots on the earlobe. Swallows between thumb and forefinger are common, as if they move as the thumb is opened and closed.

Some of the asian inmates have ornate chinese lions and dragons that take up the whole of the back. Some of the asian tattoos have something rubbed into them and they stand out from the skin like heavy embroidery. The combination of the art and the relief texture is very striking and sensual. Just as you might walk past a piece of antique furniture and run your hand over it, I've seen relief asian dragons that have made me want to do the same thing.

We get white supremacist tatts, either the words across the upper back or symbols such as patterned swaztikas. White guys often have Chinese characters, perhaps a line of them down the upper arm or one on each knuckle. The characters are for qualities such as strength, power, stamina. Jokes abound about men who ask for such characters and the tattooist gives him replacements, such as 'not the best looking guy a girl can find', etc.

We also get lots of Aboriginal flags on indigenous inmates. Although most indigenous inmates have a personal totem they do not use this for tattoo designs. Asian, on the other hand, do sometimes tattoo their totem. With the increase in middle eastern origin inmates we get the cedar of Lebanon and/or crescent moon.

Significant tatts are recorded as inmate identification, but if a man is heavily tattooed they do not worry about more than the main designs. There is no increase in sentence if a man gets tatts while in prison in this country. Neither are the officers on the lookout for new tatts. The inmate I referred to above did his own tatts with the full knowledge of the staff. However, if he was to do it with a tatt gun they would confiscate it and he would be charged with possession of an implement.

Many of our officers also have tatts, men and women. I've seen full biceps bands on women officers, something of a challenge in that to inmates as well as to male staff.

Health complications principally come when the gun is used by several inmates without being properly cleaned. Prisons are the bus interchange for hepatitis and AIDS. Ballpen ink is the most common pigment and it is not toxic. Because it is easily available they do not need to go inventing other inks out of questionable ingredients.

That should be enough to go on for a while. :)

12-18-2006, 05:26 PM
[quote=Ol' Fashioned Girl]I think the Mythbusters busted that as an Urban Legend on one of their shows.[/quote

I saw that mythbuster, but our local MRI unit is very careful about atttoos. They won't rip teh ink from your body, but they can cause the metals in the ink to get very hot, and can cause some severe problems.

So it's partly myth, partly fact. One of those things with a basis in truth that gets wildly exaggerated by having the story grow and grow.

12-24-2006, 09:07 AM
I'm kind of late on this one, but oh well.

I got my first tattoo a couple of months ago. Actually about six months now that I think about it. Anyway, the shop that I went to was recommended to me by several people. As the gentleman was working on me, he told me how he had first learned how to do tattoos while he was in prison. He then asked me what I did for a living. For some reason, I thought it best not to tell him the truth.....

So I told him that I was a garbageman.


12-28-2006, 02:57 PM
So I told him that I was a garbageman.



On the other end of the scale one of my local 'clients' (not too regular) is so far the only one I'd trust to do a tattoo for me.

I like his work, his style and his vision of what I want are similar to mine. Now all I have to do is clear up a stupid liver condition and then I'll go find him and get mine done.