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Tattoo Culture Behind Bars

Image of Prison Tattoo Art

I am in TDCJ, arguably the harshest prison system in the United States. Tattooing is most definitely against the rules here, but it is an everyday thing in every unit in every state in the country and probably the world. We work under the risk of getting caught and subsequent discipline measures such as loss of privileges, solitary confinement, parole denials, and more. Why do we do it then? Why risk tattooing or getting tattooed? For the same reason that people do the same thing in the free, plus maybe a few others.

I started tattooing while serving as a U.S. Marine stationed in Twenty-Nine Palms, California. Our base was in the middle of the Mojave Desert and the list of things to do to amuse ourselves quickly ran out. Being an artist as well as a McGuyver-ish type dude, I built my own machine out of Radio Shack parts and a guitar string and quickly started tattooing my fellow Marines. I etched devil dogs, EGA’s (Marine Corps’ emblem), skulls, banners and others. I got my hands on a professional set-up years later and continued tattooing for fun and extra money. I slowly sharpened my skills and built up my equipment as time passed.

Then I suddenly became an involuntary guest of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and my life as a tattoo artist stopped… for a while. One day I saw a man tattooing and the desire to create permanent art on people came rushing back over me. I covertly studied the machine being used, (you don’t stare in prison) and soon after, made my own. A tattoo machine is basically an electro magnet attached to a metal band with a needle. As AC (alternating current) runs through it, the end of the band with the needle attached is attracted on and off - very, very quickly. We “acquire” very fine angel hair wire and wrap it around a bolt to create our electromagnet core. We burn vaseline or plastic chess pieces in a container and make our black ink from it. When mixed with a bit of shampoo and water, it makes a very dark ink. Needles are fashioned out of stainless steel strands from a cable or stainless steel wire brush bristles. Some people even use sharpened staples. Everyone has their own preferences on how their machine is built and ink is made, but they are all basically the same. Some even connect it to their fans so that the speed may be adjusted three ways. It is very basic, but it gets the job done. In the free, people tattoo each other using anything from bamboo slivers to sewing needles. Prison is no different. After all, a tattoo is just placing ink under the skin using any method possible. It’s not a difficult process if you think about it. In prison, we make do with what we have or can “acquire”.

All tattooing in prison is done clandestinely. It becomes a little easier in the units where we live in cells instead of dorms, but it is still dangerous and easy to get caught. Here in my present unit, you have to either work in the client’s cell, or your client has to come into your cell. If caught in a cell not your own, it is very often a major disciplinary case. We use a lookout called a jigger to let us know when a guard is coming. It’s risky business nevertheless.

Most work here is single needle work, although some people tie three needles together to make a shader. Like in the free, there is a wide rage of skill levels. Some artists stick to simple lettering and tribals while there are others who rival any artist in the free as far as black and gray work. From perfect portraits to full detail back pieces, it’s all possible if you happen to know the right artist. There are even some who are able to “acquire” colored ink, but it is rare.

Why do people take the risk of getting a tattoo in prison? Getting caught or even catching an infection or disease would seem to be enough reason to just wait till freed, right? Not so. People here get tattooed for all the same reasons people do in the free, plus some.

Maybe one of the biggest is just to fit in. The vast majority of inmates in Texas are tattooed, and some are heavily tattooed. Facial tattoos are normal in this place. We tattoo everything from our names, hometowns, statements (like TRY ME), names of loved ones or lost ones, and even just random shit like a computer keyboard on the inside of an ankle so that typing can be practiced on a crossed leg while watching TV. We also identify each other by tattoos. Do you know G-Town? You know G-Town with the caddy on his neck not Spiderweb Shoulder G-Town!

A large number of prison tattoos have to do with gang life. They tell others who their “friends” are and the placement and size sometimes also tell you how serious they are about their “friends.” They are a quick and easy way for the gang investigators to confirm you and classify you as a member of a gang although that means extra attention from them and possible parole denials.

My tattoos have to do with my military service, my nickname, and my family. I have “MARINE” in inch and a half letters and a huge “EGA” (Marine Corps emblem) on my left arm, a wolf pack with each member of my family, skulls (of course), a Wonder Woman (my first love) and my keyboard. I am proud of each one. I plan on getting a “viaje” done too, which is a sort pf Mexican visual story. By looking at my tattoos, people here can quickly tell what kind of person I am, just as I can do the same by looking at their tattoos. Many times, I not only know where they are from, what to call them, and if they are connected but also how long they have in prison. It’s often useful to know as much as possible about someone as quickly as you can.

Tattooing is probably the most lucrative hustle in here, besides the drug game. Many artists rely on their skill to earn the money needed to survive in here. There is risk in everything here and tattooing might provide the most money for the level of risk involved. Not that it compares to free world prices though. A full back piece goes for about $40 here, a sleeve costs about $20. I worked for a while until I got caught three times and twice with tattoo equipment. I was lucky in that I was only given minor discipline cases each time, but it could have been way worse. I put down my machine years ago after deciding the risk wasn’t worth it. I am still an artist though and fascinated by all things tattoo. I pour over every inch of any tattoo image I can get my hands on and study the new techniques and equipment coming out, out there. So far, I have resisted the temptation to get more work done while here, but I have big plans once in the free. I love and miss the feel of the machine in my hand and that first sting as the needle enters my skin. I love that I can create something that will last almost longer than I do. Each piece of art on me serves as a bookmark of my life at the moment I got it. Even the bad tattoos remind me of times I don’t want to forget. The cholo cross between my thumb and index finger, the low-rider hat wearing skull on my ankle, the almost unidentifiable wolf face on my forearm. All bad tattoos, but I love them just the same. I wouldn’t change any of them.


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