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I ended my previous blog, Et Tu Tattoo, with questions that caused us to look at prison tattooing in different ways.

  • Tattooing is forbidden in California prisons (and other systems), so why are prison tattoos so prevalent?
  • What does a tattoo artist need to set up shop inside a prison?
  • What health issues are associated with prison tattoos?
  • Can tattoos be completely removed, and if so, how and at what cost?


I have no tattoos—I never gave them much thought before going to prison. However, I was drawn to this art form by living in its midst. I learned how tattooing was done when I bunked next to a guy who was a tattooist. His name was Jesse, and he was about forty and tall with a kind face and piercing eyes. He was a very talented sketcher and painter.

Jesse was black, and that was a potential business-flow problem. The Jim Crow–style separation of races in California’s prisons convulse at the notion of black/white physical contact. Even board games are played per racial rituals and codes. The inmates perpetuated segregationist lifestyles and rules, and the administration endorsed those rules in the name of the safety of correctional officers (COs) and inmates.

Jesse was lucky. His tattoo work was so good that people of all races waived the interracial restrictions for him and his work. So much for situational racism based on need. The revised rules said Jesse could only do tattooing on his lower bunk behind a drape made of sheets. The drape acted as a protective shield to keep the work out of sight of the COs—who knew what was going on anyway.

In my previous blog entitled The Race Card—A Potential For Disaster, I touch on the tinderbox effect of racial exploitation by COs. The pernicious racial atmosphere made interracial tatting a taboo, a forbidden practice—kinda.

  • Point 1. Tattooing is forbidden in California prisons (and other systems), so why are prison tattoos so prevalent?

California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Article 5, Section 3063 clearly states that tattoos are taboo for the tattoo artist as well as the recipient of the art:

Tattoos. Inmates shall not tattoo themselves or others, and shall not permit tattoos to be placed on themselves. Inmates shall not remove or permit removal of tattoos from themselves or others.

Theory 1—The art and culture surrounding tattooing has a power that transcends regular rules and regulations. For example, prison is boring. Expressing oneself in art and being a live canvas is one way of breaking the murderous slow-motion routines of prison life. In reality, the regulations against tatting are on the eye-wink let-it-go list between COs and inmates—most of the time. But the détente can end in a moment, for example upon CO shift changes, when new personnel replace regular personnel, or when a CO chooses to flex muscle just because he or she can.

Theory 2—The power inked skin communicates is immeasurable. Reef Karim describes it as social branding and says people get tatts for myriad reasons, including “for attention, self-expression, artistic freedom, rebellion, a visual display of a personal narrative, reminders of spiritual/cultural traditions, sexual motivation, addiction, identification with a group.”

Theory 3—Prison tatts represent a powerful subculture for self-disclosure communication, with messages ranging from “be afraid of me—I’m bad” to “I’m a proud father of these kids.” What is silently broadcast by prison ink is like a Rosetta stone of the person, as I discussed in Et Tu Tattoo.

  • Point 2. What does a tattoo artist need to set up shop inside a prison?

Caveat: Setting up a prison tattoo shop requires breaking rules, regulations, and laws resulting in punishment that can add time to inmates’ terms or send them to solitary confinement. Of course, the Internet is a resource for finding the tools of the trade and instructions on how to fabricate legal property into contraband. Vivian Giang’s Business Insider article, An Inmate Sneaked Us Photos from a Secret Prison Tattoo Parlor, is a good example. The descriptions and photos of how to fabricate the necessary tools to set up a tattoo shop from items commonly accessible to inmates are like my journal notes on the subject, below.

So, You Want to be a Prison Tattooist

You’ll need a tattoo gun:

  1. Use a motor from a cassette player or hair trimmer. Attach the motor to the pocket clip of a mechanical pencil.
  2. Use the pencil tube as the barrel of the gun through which to guide the needle.
  3. For the needle use a guitar string or a straightened spring. Sharpen with sandpaper.
  4. Power the gun with a battery pack or something hooked directly inside a table radio. Use the volume control knob to control the speed of the needle.

You’ll need ink:

  1. Locate a black chess piece.
  2. Light the chess piece on fire in a pie tin until it’s smoldering hot.
  3. Cover the soot residue coming from the burning piece with a paper bag; allow to cool.
  4. Scrape off the dried soot from inside the bag, add baby oil, and mix until the consistency of the ink is as desired. Prison tattoos are classically black due to the convenient availability of black kings and the like.
  • Point 3. What health issues are associated with prison tattoos?

In a word and an abbreviation: Hepatitis and HIV—both serious diseases. See an excellent review of the health threat posed by prison tattooing as discussed in an article published in Correctional Healthcare with Lorry Schoenly, PhD, RN, CCHP.

  • Point 4. Can tattoos be completely removed, and if so, how and at what cost?

The short answer: It depends on a variety of factors, including the color of the tattoo and the depth of the ink in the skin. Here’s a good article to start learning more on your own.

As always, I welcome your comments and reactions to my posts.

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