Tattoo Culture in American Prisons - Essay Sample

Published: 2023-12-12
Tattoo Culture in American Prisons - Essay Sample
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Culture United States Penal system HIV
Pages: 6
Wordcount: 1433 words
12 min read


The tattooing habit in general developed in the 8000 B.C here it was associated with Christianity; the early Christians marked their members using tattoo symbols. The current prison tattooing practice involves the appreciation and embracing of tattoos within the prison environment. These tattoos are a sign of allegiance or honor in prisons; gang members may have them to indicate their membership. However, the prison tattooing practice in America is also associated with health risks due to a lack of proper equipment and sterilizing substances. HIV and Hepatitis C, among other infectious diseases, have been spread through this practice. America should embrace tattooing culture; however, prison tattooing poses more risks than cultural significance to the inmates.

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Tattoo Symbols

Among the common tattoo symbols in the American prisons is the five dots tattoo; its meaning varies based on each culture. When the dots are four and placed across the knuckles, the tattoo represents the phrase "all cops are bastards." This phrase may also be communicated using beads on each hand between the thumb and forefinger. The Mexican inmates have commonly been associated with three dots organized in a triangle manner; this tattoo's meaning is initially Mexican words for "mi vida loca," which means "my crazy Vida." (Andrae et al. 20). Through these symbols, I appreciate tattoos' cultural inception; however, since a tattoo in prison could entertain prison gangs, this practice should be eliminated. Prison gangs are associated with murders in prison and bullying; they should not be encouraged using tattoos.

The fact that inmates go too far heights to obtain these tattoos is shocking and indicates tattoos' importance in their lives. The tattoos serve as badges to prisoners, illustrations of their lives, and mistakes in the past. In contrast, other prisoners acquire tattoos to break the law as it is considered illegal in American prisons (Moazen 56). I discovered that the tools used to draw these tattoos in prison include broken spoons and the labels in deodorants or molten plastic; these make the tattooing machine where ashes are used for ink. The individuals with this knowledge on ink creation and tattoo drawing are in the high chain within the prison ecosystem and are accorded much respect by the other inmates. Through this, I believe that for the unhealthy prison tattoo culture to be eliminated, the correctional facilities must adapt different ways beyond solitary confinement and discipline for prisoners discovered with fresh ink.

According to data extracted in Reddit threads, former prisoners describe the complexity of the tattoo machine's creation and colored ink. Beard trimmers or CD players are used for motor emulation for needle flexibility. The needle, on the other hand, is commonly obtained from the strings slips of a metallic guitar. A former prisoner posted in their thread the technique they formerly used to create black ink as trapping soot in a milk carton, which was then placed on top of a burning pile of plastic or pages of the Bible. The former prisoner mentioned that for hygienic purposes, he would mix the soot and ash mixed with some alcohol, liquid India ink would be used to insert color in the mix.

Tattooing Practices

According to data from the Center for Disease Control, in 2005, approximately 88 men in the Georgia correctional facilities were examined where half the number was traced to have acquired HIV and AIDS from the tattooing practices in prison (Ceylan 48). However, after considering the conditions of a jail, disconnection from career, family, and the real world, I find justification for prisoners' extents to obtain tattoos despite the many health risk factors. Sometimes innocent individuals may be caught up in the prison world; the only way they, like the rest of the prisoners, can remember the real world is through tattoos. Despite the controversy and risk in it, tattoos may also remind prisoners what they stand for, especially religion or other values such as loyalty and honesty. Among the recommended ways to decrease the spread of infectious diseases in prisons would be setting up official tattoo parlors with required hygienic and capacity standards. The prison tattooing culture is not on the verge of dying soon.

Tattoos are partially responsible for the creation and existence of group identities in prison. This may be demonstrated using the 18th and 19th-century seafarers who used tattoos to spread utilitarianism. The solidifying impact of tattoos among a group's members may be linked to the connection developed from the sustaining ideology. Themes of tattoos are, therefore, different in prisons based on each group's unifying ideology. A common enemy may also be linked to individual tattoos in jail responsible for causing cohesion. Unifying features for opposition may also create a stigma to the counter tattoos for such groups. The group identity aspect of prison tattooing is a negative impact, and I believe that it should be among the reasons prison tattooing should be eliminated. However, group identity could also be a positive factor for the weak.

Survival Mechanism

Tattoos in prison may serve as a survival mechanism and symbol for defiance. Tattoos are generally associated with an indication of control over the owner's body. Tattoos within the American criminals indicate empowerment, mostly drawn from their categorization as a convicted criminal who is expected in the society and linked to stigma. Criminal tattoo psychology may, therefore, function to perceive tattoos as body reclamation from the state; the state is negatively perceived as initially attempting to enslave the tattoo owner's body through imprisonment (Moazen 60). The Chicano people, for instance, after imprisonment, mark their bodies with ink and are treated with respect afterward; this practice develops a sense of pride in them. Therefore, culture and tattoos are inseparable, and prisoners are part of these cultures despite their perception of society based on their past crimes. The tattooing culture is deeply rooted in identity and symbolism, such as defiance demonstration.

The tattoos and tattooing practices have been associated with magical beliefs in the past, which is also relevant in prison practices; it partially explains the culture in prison. The historic mystical tattoos were linked to healing and prevention from risks and other uncertainties. However, for the magical effect to be unlocked, the tattoo bearer had to follow the artist's instructions. Therefore, criminals may exploit these tattoos to purchase charm. Religious imagery is part of the magical charm associated with tattoos and is commonly used by modern-day prisoners. In my opinion, prisoners' magical aspect of belief for tattoos is part of their culture, which should be respected. However, this culture may be exploited for ongoing criminal activities, which makes it unhealthy.

According to the recidivism studies in the United States, tattooed inmates were associated with violent recidivism compared to the non-tattooed former prisoners. This data was collected from 898 released former offenders. The individuals with the largest and most visible tattoos were most likely to be reconvicted, especially within the follow-up duration (Reyes 2). Even though tattoos are a cultural tradition that deserves some respect, prison tattooing precedes these perceptions negatively. The negative impacts of prison tattooing precede the positive effects in most ways: the spread of diseases, violent recidivism, gang identities, and rebellion. On the other hand, the positive results are individuals, such as meaning in life and cultural observance.


Conclusively, prison tattooing is the practice of drawing and embedding tattoos with meanings within the prison society. American prisoners have been associated with several symbolic tattoos, such as the teardrop, which states that they were defiled while in incarceration—the for dots on the knuckles, which insults the police bastards. Tattoo practices in prison are associated with the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C due to the lack of sterilization equipment and needles' sharing. Prisoners go to great extents to acquire tattooing items, which indicates their need for these tattoos; the heights include using molten plastic to make ink. The solution to this problem would be creating an official tattoo parlor within America's correctional facilities. The official parlor would prevent the spreads of infection and establish a regulation for the culture.

Works Cited

Andrae, Dominic, Tracey McIntosh, and Stan Coster. "You can't take my face": A personal narrative of self-modification through tattooing in the Aotearoa/New Zealand prison system." New Zealand Sociology 32.2 (2017).

Ceylan, Mehmet Fatih, et al. "High prevalence of nonsuicidal self-injury, tattoos, and psychiatric comorbidity among male adolescent prisoners and their sociodemographic characteristics." Asian journal of psychiatry 43 (2019): 45-49.

Moazen, Babak, et al. "Prevalence of drug injection, sexual activity, tattooing, and piercing among prison inmates." Epidemiologic Reviews 40.1 (2018): 58-69.

Reyes, Rebecca R. The Prisoner as Object: Rhetorical Agency and the Literacy of Prison Tattooing. Diss. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, 2019.

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