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Prison tattoos speak a language all their own – and it’s often a coded one. For example, various symbols and code words and numbers may indicate what a prisoner is in for.
An image of a cat indicates burglary; a group of cats mean that the thief was part of a gang. Spider webs across the shoulders speak of the amount of time spent in prison; tombstones mean a wasted life. These prison tattoos are worn as badges of honour, of a sort – though sometimes tattoo designs also propagate hate.
Currently, a controversy is arising with regard to a harm reduction program in American prisons. Professional tattooing is being offered as a service in some prisons, in recognition of the fact that prisoners are always going to acquire tattoos, so they might as well do it safely rather than with makeshift equipment. This is a contrast to the approach that was taken in previous years, when there were tattoo removal programs in place to help prisoners re-integrate into society.
Cross-Cultural Prison Tattoos
Gang and prison tattoos often vary according to nationality, though a few symbols seem to be universal. Skulls usually mean murderers, for example, and barbed wire across the forehead denotes a life sentence.
Mexican prison tattoos – especially among members of the Mexican mafia - often consist or ornate letters spelling out the member’s gang affiliation. So do Columbian prison tattoos – though they often spell out other words, too, running the gamut from ‘madre’ (mother) to expletives.
Russian prison tattoos – many of which date back to the days of the Soviet Union – show the prisoner’s rank and position within the prison system, something which was often a source of pride rather than shame. In fact, Russian prison tattoos are so complex that several books have been written on that subject alone.
Prison tattoos speak an intricate language, and they really have much more in common with tribal tattooing than with body art as most of us know it. And though the policy of providing safe tattooing in prisons is highly controversial, it does have merit on the basis of disease prevention. Prison tattoos are here to stay, and inmates have always found ways of tattooing with the most rudimentary of equipment.
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