This blog post focuses on the work of photographer Steven Burton, whose photographs capture the results of digitally removing ink from heavily tattooed skin. I find the photos compelling. If you’re like me, your eyes will dart back and forth between the pictures.
Prison tattoos (tats or ink) are complicated works of art. They are Rosetta stones that translate otherwise mysterious messages. What messages is the man on the left in Photo Set 1 broadcasting? Which man would make you uneasy if he took the seat next to you on a bus? Tattoos can identify gang affiliations, religion, a philosophy of hate, memorials, crimes committed, and more. A “187” inked on an inmate’s body is announcing a murder conviction.
The softer side of tattoos includes well-defined pictures of stunning ladies, historical characters, and smiling children. Children’s and ladies’ smiles beam from bulked-up pecs and abs. The juxtaposition of subject matter upon a human canvas is an intriguing blend of elements.
What’s this all about?
In an A Plus article entitled “Ex-Gang Members Shed Their Tattoos in Thought-Provoking Photo Series,” Zayda Rivera reviews Burton’s new book Skin Deep. Indeed, the book contains Burton’s startling before and after pictures. The photos in this blog are examples of some of the photos in Skin Deep.
What are your reactions to the second photo set? The photo on the left sends me signals of anger and cynicism. The devils and sexy women could represent confusion or simply be this man’s expression of the good and bad in life. The man in the digitally modified photo, although the same person as in the inked version, is more approachable—showing little anger or cynicism. When read collectively with the female sirens on his chest, the Playboy bunny on his chin, bookended by a 6 and a 9, suggest a misogynistic point of view.
Personal growth and maturation change a person’s perception of his or her tattoos. Former gang members don’t want to continue advertising their previous associations on their exposed skin. With facial and neck tattoos and tats on other places of the their bodies, Burton’s inked subjects find it hard to be accepted by free people.
What was Burton trying to accomplish? He is quoted in the A Plus article about his intent:
By showing them without their gang tattoos, I hope it will help humanize a culture that is so easily and often demonized by society by taking away the initial fear that the tattoos create, allowing you to get to know the subjects through their interviews.
How do you interpret the photos of the woman in Set 3?
- How does the tattoo above her upper lip make you feel? What does it suggest to you?
- Based only upon first impressions, would you be more likely to hire the person on the right? Why or why not?
- What other reactions do you have to the tats on this woman’s face, neck, and arm?
What do the pictures in Photo set 4 make you think? Where does your mind wander?
If you’re interested in knowing more about Steve Burton’s work, check out this Peoplebodies article and video.
Also, go to Steve’s website and look at his photography portfolio. Click on Skin Deep to see Steve talking about his concept for his book. Some of the people shown in this blog are in the video. You’ll see and hear their poignantly stated regrets about their heavy tattoos.
These are some of the prison reform issues being raised:
- 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 are health issues associated with prison tattoos?
- Can tattoos be completely removed, and if so, how and at what cost?
Et Tu Tattoos II!
In my next blog, I will address each of the prison issues I’ve identified above. If you have suggestions for more topics, please let me know.
I appreciate all comments to my blogs.
Photo credits: Steven Burton http://www.stevenburtonphotography.com/