Saturday, 5 July 2014

Prison Tattoos... a Personal View

Although the study of prison tattoos is well established in Russia and the USA, less attention seems to be paid to the issue in Britain. One of the obvious reasons is that Russian inmates have developed a complex 'language' that links tattoos to the criminal underworld. These include IDs, codes, rank badges, gang 'family' affiliations and even numbers and the types of offences committed by the prisoner. Having the 'right' set of tattoos acts like a criminal calling-card when entering a new prison. It helps to establish the inmate's position in the hierarchy and offers reassurance to others that he isn't an informer, undercover police agent or a sex offender.

Russian prison tattoos
Of course, having the 'wrong' type of tattoos - fake affiliations or claims of false ranks or other distinctions - can lead to serious violence against the offender, of which merely having the offending tattoos cut or burned off their flesh is probably the least of the consequence. In some cases, Russian prisoners known or suspected to be informers, debtors or homosexuals are forcibly tattooed on the orders of gang leaders as a 'punishment', sometimes across the face or forehead so there can be no hiding their shame.

Russian, and earlier Soviet, prison experts have photographed and catalogued convicts' tattoos. It is now possible to purchase encyclopedias of Russian prison tattoos, complete with photos and interpretations.

Meanwhile, in the US prison system, the science of interpreting prison tattoos is used by correctional staff to monitor gang affiliations and keep tabs on alliances that are formed inside institutions between different gangs. Some prisons have security department specialists trained in the recognition and interpretation of tattoos.

In the UK's prison system tattoos are often seen as little more than personal body art. I would give a rough estimate that about half of all prisoners I've known have some form of tattoo or other on their bodies. I'm not sure how that compares to the national average in the UK, but I suspect there's a higher percentage among prisoners. Some inmates like them because even in a strip cell in the Block (segregation unit), tattoos can't be confiscated by staff, unlike clothes or jewellery.

Many tattoo designs are very traditional ('Mum' and/or 'Dad'; names of family or loved ones; 'Love' and 'Hate' on the knuckles), others are more inventive and can include reproductions of family photos, images of pets or vehicles, fantasy females, cartoons characters... the list is endless. During the reception process, existing tattoos are logged on the individual prisoner's record, in part because this aids identification by staff. Reception officers are also on the lookout for anything that might indicate gang or racist affiliations.

Although quite a few prisoners arrive in custody with tattoos, others choose to get 'inked' while they are inside. This creates a variety of problems. The first is that tattooing - either by oneself or by others - while in custody is an offence under prison regulations. It is usually classed as a form of self-harm. For this reason, tattoo guns and liquid ink are considered contraband items. That doesn't stop prisoners from making 'tat guns' or mixing up various noxious substances - such as black paint - to use as ink.  

Despite the clandestine nature of the tattooing business inside prison, there seems to be a never ending supply of willing customers, some of whom are young lads who see prison 'tats' as a rite of passage into the world of adult prisons. In the closed estate, prison tattoo artists - a few professionally qualified, most not - turn their cells into studios during association periods and there is usually a mate willing to stand guard at the door or on the landing to give a warning signal if a screw is coming near. The usual payment for this art work, some of which can be very well executed, is made in either tobacco from the prison canteen ('burn') or by having a family member on the outside send in a postal order by post to the tattooist's private cash account.

Prison-made tattoo gun
Tattooing equipment ('tat guns') can be made from a variety of items... electric toothbrush motors, parts of old battery-operated razors etc. More traditional methods include a sewing needle jammed into a cork or bottle cap. Once constructed, these items are hidden around cells and are liable to be found and seized during a 'spin' (a cell search). Charges usually follow such seizures.

One of the main reasons that the prison authorities crack down on the tattooing business is because of the high number of serious infections that occur. Facilities to sterilise equipment are usually lacking on the inside and dipping a needle into mouthwash, floor disinfectant or burning it with a cigarette lighter really doesn't solve the problem completely. One inmate with undiagnosed HIV or hepatitis going under the needle has the potential to spread infection to other customers.

Various types of infection are common risks and I've seen some horrendous wounds which will disfigure the victim for life. When these infections start as a result of new tattoos, many prisoners are very reluctant to seek medical attention because they fear being placed on report, so it can be days or weeks before they finally make it to healthcare. By then, the damage can be severe and there have been cases of septicemia going untreated until the inmate is extremely ill.

Unlike Russia and the USA, however, prison tattoos in the UK rarely have complex connotations. I've never personally come across a case of a prisoner being 'disciplined' by other inmates for wearing fake tattoos or gang symbols. Rather bizarrely, I have seen a few cases where prisoners have actually had their own prison number tattooed on their arms, almost like a badge of pride. I suppose that makes it easier if you can't remember a three letter, four digit combination!


  1. Danzig Baldayev, a St Petersburg prison guard, spent three decades documenting the body art of inmates. His life's work, the three-volume Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, is captivating. We learn that cats can symbolise a thief's pedigree. A single cat says they acted alone; several cats together indicate a gang.

    Canada's Border Services Agency has a guide to tattoos that provides amusing evidence of how the authorities may stereotype tattooed gentlemen. AFFA ("Angel Forever, Forever Angel") on the knuckles screams Hell's Angel. A noose is favoured by KKK fans. VL stands for "vida loca" –my crazy life. Then again, never assume the worst: one man claimed "hate" on his knuckles stood for happiness all through eternity. According to the Canadian authorities, clown faces can mean "Laugh now, cry later" and "play now, pay later", which probably sums up the poor gang members' emotions when caught in customs with an enormous bag of drugs and guns. When placed on elbows or shoulders, the spider's web traditionally denoted being caught in prison. Other prison motifs include clock faces without hands, tombstones with numbers and a prison wall with bricks falling outward. What on earth could that mean?

    1. Thanks for your observations. British prison tattoos haven't developed to represent a secret code or rank system, unlike the Russian versions. I have seen young cons get tattoos of tears at the corner of their eyes supposedly to represent people they have killed, although some sources suggest that in the USA it actually means that they have been raped in prison.

      I've seen a fair amount of racist symbols used as tattoos in UK prisons, including swastikas. One young lad with a prominent EDL tattoo was ordered to wear an arm bandage to cover it up or face repeated nickings (disciplinary charges).

  2. their is a tattoo mising from your uk prison tattoo list, the borstal spot a simple dot under the eye , usealy done in young offenders or if your old enough borstal, this usealy means villian for life and shows that your no stranger to the system

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  3. I remember as a kid in the mid-80s a line or a blue smudge (little like a cut with blue ink rubbed in) under the eye. Right side just 3inchs down just above cheek (3inch down from middle of eye not side like a tear drop),Always blue ink....anyway my point was I don't see these tats anymore plus what did it mean? (Always thought it had something to do with Borstal, like u were given this tat not by choice)

  4. In the 1980s some boys chose to have a green dot tattooed on their cheek underneath the eye in green ink this was to show that they had done borstal training it was usually done with a sewing needle most boys that wanted to be successfull criminals would refrain from having this done because it made everyone aware that they had been in the borstal system, most criminals in uk prisons used to look down on cons with the borstal dot as there is no U.K. prison tattoo code