The Hustle and the Hierarchy of Prison Tattoos

prison tattoos

In a walled, self-contained city, the artist creating prison tattoos is highly respected.

The cost of housing an inmate is a matter of debate in our corrections system, but while locked up, the inmate must also pay for their stay with their own ingenuity. With money and/or manpower, every inmate has to hustle to survive prison. Just as in the military, law enforcement and all cultures and subgroups, in prison there is an order and a hierarchy, from a low-level enforcer to a lieutenant or captain. While some members are more expendable than others, an artist creating prison tattoos can find himself needed, protected and prosperous.

Due to the increased risk of disease or infection and the creation of banned weapons or items that can be used as weapons, prison tattoos aren’t permitted. But through innovation and the cooperation and protection of fellow inmates, artists of prison tattoos find a way.

Growing up, I saw machines used for prison tattoos and other confiscated low-tech gadgets all the time, because my dad worked as a corrections officer in an upstate New York maximum-security facility. Now retired after 25 years on the job, he tells me, “We didn’t see much tattooing going on. That sort of thing can add years to their sentences, so they use lookouts and have codes for us and know when to ditch ’em. They can even rip it apart quick so it’s back to the original items that made the machines, and those aren’t illegal.”

prison tattoos

Danny Trejo’s chest tattoo of a lady wearing a sombrero was made with guitar string in San Quentin State Prison in 1965. Courtesy of Andres Herren.

As I got older, I became fascinated by the ingenuity of prison tattoo machines and the entire process of tattooing in general.

Around the world, the tattoo can be a show of loyalty and artistic love. It’s often a sign of respect among members of various cliques, organizations, heritages or religions. In some cultures, a tattoo can be a status symbol. But while the tattoo reaches back thousands of years in almost all cultures as a mark of respect and honor, today some people see tattoos as a sign of low morals, criminality or lesser intelligence.

There is certainly a seedy side of tattooing and body art (unlicensed “tattoo parties” come to mind), but the majority of tattoos are done by skilled professionals as a lawful business transaction. Like many other careers, tattooing has apprenticeships, and many of today’s best tattoo artists started out that way. As with woodworking or welding, tattoo apprenticeships can last several years and cost several thousand dollars. Tattoo apprentices must have a background in art, and their mentors must approve of their portfolios before taking them on. During an apprenticeship, an artist will learn everything from using the machines to conducting a business.

Once tattoo artists are working on their own, whether in a standard tattoo business or while doing prison tattoos, they’re responsible for making consultation appointments, discussing the tattoo and making adjustments, applying the stencil or freehand work with markers, discussing any last-minute details, sitting for the duration of the tattoo appointment (with breaks), applying ointment and wrapping the tattoo, and making the next appointment.

prison tattoos

Freddy Negrete is a pioneer in black-and-grey fine-line prison tattoos. Courtesy of Andres Herren.

The only differences between the processes for standard tattoo studios or for creators of prison tattoos are in the machines, inks and settings.

The machine (the term “tattoo gun” isn’t accepted by tattoo artists) used for prison tattoos is created by using a number of small motors, such as from a cassette player or a beard trimmer, with a needle made from a guitar string or a paper clip. Professional tattoo machines allow variations in needle size and speed. But the sharpened paper clip or snapped guitar string needle for prison tattoos will run at only one size and speed due to the rotary-style motor.

The ink for prison tattoos is made of soot from burnt board game pieces and baby oil or boot polish. One of my foster brothers, who had multiple tattoo sessions while doing time in upstate New York, says, “We used newspaper soot a lot. Didn’t pop any sockets or nothing, just used matches to start it burning.”

For those of us with our freedom, a tattoo session is often situated in an environment similar to a doctor’s office, hidden for tattooing only particular areas of the body or at a client’s request. For inmates, sheets cover bars in the luxury of a prison cell. To protect the artist from being caught while doing prison tattoos, lookouts use callouts such as “Screw’s loose” or “Bull’s-eye,” verbal warnings known to all the inmates and varying from prison to prison.

prison tattoos

Biker back

Once the tattoo session is finished and dressing applied, the average professional tattoo artist collects payment of about $100 an hour. Artists creating prison tattoos may charge a tenth of that.

While those of us with tattoos may have to deal with only the stigma attached to them, those conducting and receiving prison tattoos have to keep in mind the ramifications of their art, including punishments like relocation, being barred from the commissary (where the items for the machine can be bought), relinquished visitation rights, and time added to a sentence.

For these reasons, the prison tattoo artist with true talent and skill is held in highest regard. Inmates see the artist as irreplaceable and offer certain privileges: “spreads” (such as ramen with crushed Fritos, vegetables and cheeses), “pruno” (prison wine) and deposits into their commissary accounts, which can come only from friends and family on the outside.

prison tattoos

Classic Russian front

With the limitations of life in prison, the tattoo artist’s ingenuity is severely tested. With no scanners or printers to ink and no professionally made machines, artists of prison tattoos show their worth in their hustle.

And they develop a way to support and express their art when released. end

Special thanks to photographer Andres Herren. Follow his work here.



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