Tattooing and Prison Culture: Tattoos as Symbols of Identity and Survival Behind Bars

In prison culture, tattooing has become a unique way for inmates to communicate their personal identities, their crimes, and their survival experiences behind bars. This practice continues to evolve, telling a fascinating and often complex story of life behind prison walls.

Key Takeaways

- Tattooing in prison culture represents identity, convictions, and survival stories.

- The types of tattoos worn by inmates can be associated with the nature of their crimes and their behavior.

- Despite being prohibited, tattooing is widespread in prisons and has implications for inmate reintegration into society post-release.

- This form of body art plays a vital role in the expressive culture within prisons.

What do Prison Tattoos Represent?

Prison tattoos often serve as badges of identity, marking an individual's affiliation, crimes, or beliefs. From the late 1880s, tattooing among criminals in the United States began to increase significantly. Such tattoos frequently document the wearer's crimes, sentences, and beliefs, forming an intricate part of their identity.

Contrary to what one might expect, American criminals of the late 19th century had a distinct aversion towards anti-social tattoos, possibly in an attempt to avoid giving law enforcement any additional clues to their identities. Despite this, the practice of tattooing escalated in the prison system. In fact, data from Idaho shows that the percentage of incoming inmates with tattoos has increased tenfold since the 1880s.

Why is Tattooing Prohibited in Prisons?

Although prevalent, tattooing is strictly forbidden by all U.S. prison rules. This prohibition applies to both the tattoo artist and the inmate receiving the tattoo, with both parties subject to equal disciplinary action. The prohibition aims to maintain a semblance of order and discipline within the prison environment and to prevent the potential spread of infectious diseases through non-sterile tattooing equipment.

However, prison officials often find themselves in a quandary. If rules are too stringent, tattooing is driven underground, and hygiene standards deteriorate, posing significant health risks. At the same time, the prohibition does little to deter the practice. An Idaho prison official estimates that 90% of today's Idaho inmates receive tattoos while in prison.

How Do Prison Tattoos Impact Inmates Post-Release?

One of the significant negative aspects of prison tattoos is their potential to stigmatize individuals upon release. These tattoos identify an individual as a former inmate, which can elicit negative responses from society, including prospective employers. This has implications for the successful reintegration of inmates into society post-release, hindering their opportunities for employment and social acceptance.

Interestingly, several studies have shown that tattooed inmates feel more positive about their bodies and are more assertive, uninhibited, and extroverted than their non-tattooed counterparts. They exhibit less self-discipline but are less likely to talk about crime. A 1972 study showed that prisoners with tattoos generally had more education than those without tattoos.

A dissertation exploring differences between inmates with prison-specific tattoos (like spider webs, clocks, prison towers) and those with non-prison specific tattoos (like animals, ethnic origin tattoos) found distinct variations in criminal thinking, risk for recidivism, number of convictions, and disciplinary infractions. These findings indicated a deeper connection between the art of tattooing and the complex dynamics of prison life. Demonstrating an intricate relationship between prison tattoos and the behavior and psyche of inmates. (Rozycki, 2007)

Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, tattooing in prison culture is a potent symbol of identity, conviction, and survival. Despite being prohibited, it is an essential part of the expressive role within prisons, reflecting the complexities of life behind bars.


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