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One Last Thing: The Prison Tattoo

The latest in a centuries-long tradition of tattooing in prisons worldwide.
The making of a tattoo gun. 

The making of a tattoo gun. 

Captivity will beget invention. Modern American prisoners can jury-rig tattoo machines out of objects available at the commissary. A bit of a pen, a warped toothbrush, and a nine-volt battery get you a fully functional ink gun — the latest technology in a centuries-long tradition of tattooing in prisons worldwide.


To combat higher rates of hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS among prisoners, Canada established tattoo parlors in six prisons in 2005. It was a promising way to prevent infection — until the government closed those parlors a year later. (Photo: Sam Kaplan; Styling: Priscilla Jeong)

Tattoos have served as ritualistic totems in a variety of cultures for millennia. In Japan, it was during the Kofun Period (300 to 600 C.E.) when tattoos began to assume connotations of criminality: Criminals were branded with a tattoo, much as slaves were in the Western Roman Empire.

Like some sailors, prisoners embrace the underworld connotations of tattoos, and, in both cases, tattoos can be personal signifiers within otherwise uniform environments. Conversely, some tats can indicate group cohesion: The traditional mottled blue of the American prison tattoo is as likely to denote gang membership as it is to say “I ♥ Mom.”

Despite the allure, prison ink can prove a liability. When sentencing a prisoner, judges in some states can consider gang tattoos cause for enhanced penalties, depending on the crime. On rare occasions, a tat can even function as evidence: In 2008, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department nailed Anthony Garcia for shooting John Juarez in a liquor store four years earlier. The tip-off? Garcia, a member of the Pico Rivera gang, was now sporting a tattoo that depicted the 2004 shooting in punctilious detail — including the store’s holiday decorations and the direction in which the victim’s body had fallen. Garcia confessed and was convicted of first-degree murder in April 2011.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2016 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.