Prison tattooing is the practice of creating and displaying tattoos in a prison environment. They are often used to portray gang membership, prison status, family bonds, spiritual beliefs and are often used as a form of code and have hidden meanings. Tattooing is forbidden in most prisons and therefore is done in secret, with makeshift tattoo equipment. Within the expanding prison system, tattoos are taken seriously by the inmates and their guards alike. Tattoos obtained while locked up in prison have special significance both to the prisoners themselves as well as back on the streets.
Methods of Tattooing in Prison
There are two standard type of prison tattoo pistols, the spinner and the relay. The relay pistol is much better than the spinner rig-up and is now more widely used. An inmate breaks down his most prized possession, a radio, and removes the transistor. The thin copper wire is then removed which is wrapped around a screw which provides an automatic relay when powered up. The inmate must then somehow acquire bristles from a wire brush from maintenance, and sharpen them to provide the needle. The cylinder is made from a quality mechanical pencil and the armature bar is made with a piece of flexible pallet band and dime size magnet. The tattoo gun is then powered by the transistor of another radio. So owning one of these tattoo “pistols” is quite costly and in prison, “money” can be hard to come by.
Obviously without this equipment, the ole pick and poke method with some type of pin works too.
Prison tattoo ink recipe
Get a metal container, a cut in half soda can is best, and put baby oil and cotton into the can. You then will need a flat piece of metal that can be put over the opening of the can, without covering it. Burn the baby oil and cotton allowing the smoke to hit the metal sheet and blacken it as darkly as possible. You will then scrape all of the black powder off, and repeat. You want to use a credit card or something similar to do this, as razors and other metal scrapers might leave shards in the powder. Put your tattoo powder in a small container, a toothpaste cap is what I recommend, and fill the cap about halfway. Then add a couple drops of clear, scentless, shampoo. Stir thoroughly. Your completed ink should have a pen’s inks consistency, or maybe slightly thicker. To thin your ink, add shampoo, and to thicken it up, add more powder.
Some inmates will simply use the ink out of a pen. There are various methods of concocting an ink recipe and they have all probably been used at one time or another.
Due to the lack of proper equipment and sterile environments in prison, the tattooing in prison poses health risks, such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis. However, prisoners are ominously aware of this and take as many precautions as are possible given the conditions under which they are operating.
Many inmates in prison who do tattooing are very talented artists. Having quality tattooing skills is prison is a very lucrative skill to possess. Seasoned tattoo artists in prison stand a far better chance of making “money” than say the inmate who is trying to sling drugs behind the scenes. They also gain the admirable respect of other prisoners as well as the correctional officers themselves. Unlike other mind bending activities such as gossip or gang related stimuli the tattoo artist occupies his mind with skin and art.
Some Prison Tattoo Meanings in North America
Three dots arranged as a triangle – this design is most commonly found between the prisoner’s forefinger and thumb. The design stands for “mi vida loca,” which means “my crazy life.”
Teardrop tattoo – this design is worn by the eye. It indicates the wearer has killed someone or that the person had a friend killed in prison.
Shamrock – this design is worn anywhere on the body and is often found on those belonging to the Aryan Brotherhood. In this case, the shamrock often also includes the number 12, with the 1 standing for “A” and the 2 standing for “B.”
Ace of spades – Worn anywhere on the body, this design is mostly worn by those belonging to either the Aco Town or Asian Boyz gang. The A, which is often placed in the middle of the spade, is meant to symbolize Asian while the spade symbolizes thievery.
The number 13 – this tattoo indicates membership with the Mara Salvatrucha 13 gang.
The number 14 – this tattoo indicates membership with the Nuestra Familia, which is a prison gang. This gang is affiliated with the Nortenos, a street gang.
Area codes – many gang members use the area code to their neighborhood as a tattoo, though this can become outdated as area codes are changed.
Clock with no hands – most commonly placed on the upper arm, this tattoo symbolizes “doing time.”
Spider web – generally found on the elbow, this tattoo is used by white supremacists to demonstrate that they have severely injured or killed one of their “opponents.” The design is also commonly found on people that have been in prison.
Clock faces without hands – doing time
Tombstones with numbers – the years they were inside
Tombstones with numbers and RIP – mourning the death of a friend
Face of female crying – has someone on the outside waiting
SWP – supreme white power
100 % pure – pure white or anglo
Cell window with sun or bird showing – waiting to get out
Other countries such as Russia, Australia, France, UK, China and others all have prisons with inmates who bear tattoos with significant meanings. As a matter of fact, Russia and it’s former republics have a very elaborate array of tattoo meanings.
One very major point inmates consider while getting tattooed is getting caught. If an inmate gets caught getting a tattoo they are subject to a penalty of 15 days of solitary confinement. Being suspected of getting a tattoo as perhaps is indicated by the reddening of the skin where a fresh tattoo has been inked can still bring repercussions, such as being charged. But hey, if your doing life without the possibility of parole does this really concern you a whole lot?
The concept of prison tattoos is hardly a modern one. There is evidence to suggest that prisoners were tattooed as early as Egyptian times. As with many of the tattoos worn by prisoners today, these tattoos also had significant meaning. For example king or pyramid tattoos were worn by those that were very dangerous, such as assassins, head bosses, and masterminds.