The Artistry of the Prison Tat

By | January 3, 2014

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Every experience in life turns to knowledge of one kind or another. Whether it is a negative experience or a positive one, we learn from it all. Some will take that newfound knowledge and use it to enhance and better their lives. Some will take that newfound knowledge and put it aside as someone else’s responsibility without ever taking advantage of the gift they have been given.

When a person becomes incarcerated, they have many choices handed to them. It may not seem that way at the time, but they truly do. In our world of corrections there is something happening that we on the outside are oblivious to. There are classes being offered to make way for a more positive future. Among the classes GED is the first and foremost to be offered. There are college courses available. There are vocational courses available. Among the vocational courses there are CDL (commercial driver license) classes; Culinary Arts classes; Horticulture classes; Tile Setting classes; Wood Working classes and so much more.

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However, even with all that is available to help the time of incarceration fly by a little easier, there is a new trade many who are living behind the iron bars learn. During the down time in their small living quarters, inmates are creating intricate designs, family faces, gang symbols, names of loved ones. They are taking all this creative artistry and transferring their skills onto each other’s skin. Some inmates have become walking works of prison art.

But how do these highly creative, highly skilled individuals pull off something they are not only prohibited, but lack the materials? Prison tattooing, also known as prison tats, are an artistry that does not begin when the ink hits the skin, but it begins when the tool is made. The final outcome of a tat is the end of a long and creative process.

A prison tat gun is made of anything from a pencil and staple to a motorized gun made from contraband that is either sneaked into the prison or stolen from other parts of the facility. I was able to see a very intricate tattoo that covered the entire calf of a young man’s leg that had just been released from a county jail after 3 months of time served. The tattoo was done entirely with one staple. Shading as well as the lines that swirled across his leg with amazing flare was all done with a simple staple that may have been found attached to a letter, on some school papers, or just laying on the floor.

Another prison tat I have seen is of a nautical star with swirls of design and smaller stars in the corner. All made in a prison cell, by a prisoner, on another prisoner, in a matter of three and a half hours. This tattoo was made by a homemade gun out of any materials they are able to find. Truly an artwork of its own, the mechanics of the tat gun is ingenuity at it’s very best.

So how is the gun made? With these simple materials, a tattoo gun can be made within an hour or less. The motor from a cd player, computer disc drive, electric razor, electric tooth brush, DVD player, or anything else with a small motor inside the component. The spring from a pen is used for the needle itself. A pen shaft and the lid from a pen. A rubber band, headphone wire, batteries, and maybe another simple item or two. For a simpler, yet more painful and tedious tattoo, a staple stuck into the end of a pencil can be used, while a filed bamboo shoot works just as well.

But where do they get the ink? From the pen? No. I had always thought the ink from the pen is what made the tattoo, but now I know just what it is made from. In some cases it’s from vegetable oil. Others use hair grease. But it’s not the grease or oil itself, but the soot that is made from burning the grease and oil.

I was honored to get my very own prison tat. A simple heart on my ankle was just so I could see how the process is done. The making of the tattoo gun captured my attention, but when I saw how and where the ink comes from, I was completely intrigued. The top of an empty soda can was cut. A paper towel was then rolled up and put inside the hole before vegetable oil was poured over the towel and into the lid of the can. The paper was lit on fire and a bowl was placed over the flame (tilted so it would not suffocate the fire). After a decent amount of time, the fire was put out and the soot in the bowl was scraped into a bottle cap.

The next step was to add just enough water to the soot to make a black inky mixture a little runnier than a paste. He then took the gun, dipped the “needle” into the ink, and began his work over the decaled mark of the heart on my ankle.

An artwork that is considered contraband inside the walls of the incarcerated. An artwork that is considered illegal in the free world because of the health risks involved. An artwork I am looking forward to repeating with a yin-yang on another designated part of my body.

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