Reading People’s Faces

Tattoos, dueling scars, and other rational acquisitions

It is a truth universally acknowledged that messing with a guy who has facial tattoos is a really bad idea.

Getting dirty words tattooed on your eyelids—a popular choice, judging from the mug shots available online—is a serious commitment. It is, as social scientists say, a “signal that is costly to fake.” The bearer of a facial tattoo announces to the world: I expect to be in prison for most of my life, or to hang out with people who consider prison experience a character reference.

Those of us who are not a part of the criminal underworld have a much cheaper system: Asked for a reference, we happily provide our colleagues’ phone numbers and email addresses. But for crooks, broadcasting signals about their professional pasts and current social networks is a good way to wind up with a new pair of concrete shoes. In Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate (Princeton), the Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta uses colorful stories and a minimum of jargon in his quest to analyze how people advertise when their business happens to be illegal.

Unlike a legal trademark, an underworld brand can’t be defended with little more than an expensive attorney. If another gang steps into your turf, you can opt for a violent defense of your signal of choice. But gangsters who previously relied on large gaudy tattoos to get a message across can hardly go around roughing up every 17-year-old with a tramp stamp on her tailbone.

As tattoos go mainstream, criminals have to adapt. These days, even art on your neck, collarbone, and wrists is barely enough to signal your commitment to subcultures that are totally legal.

But there are still some kinds of tattoos—including those inky eyelid admonitions and the homespun variety created with a shard of a ballpoint pen during long hours behind bars—that retain their signaling power, demonstrating a commitment to the criminal way of life. A guy with extensive Aryan Brotherhood facial tattoos is unlikely to snitch on his buddies. The only thing worse than getting an eyelid tattoo is having one removed. What’s he going to do, go into witness protection and start a new life as a kindergarten teacher in Ohio?

In Japan, members of the yakuza have long favored tattoos covering the entire upper body to signal their mafia status. They also amputate all or part of a pinky finger. One study estimated that between 40 percent and 70 percent of the yakuza had sacrificed a digit, generally making the cut themselves.

Even with tattoos and auto-amputations, this traditional mafia once operated almost completely in the open. Members had business cards, embossed with the emblems of their gangs and legends indicating their rank. There’s an entire genre of Japanese movies devoted to their exploits. By 1974, Gambetta writes in an excellent chapter on how “art imitates (low) life,” the Japanese B-movie industry was producing 100 yakuza movies a year.

But in 1992, as the Japanese government began a crackdown on gangsters under the Violent Groups Control Law, filmmaker Juzo Itami released a yakuza film different from the traditional B-movie fare. Content, even proud, to be immortalized in film as brutal killers—a useful reputation for anyone who can’t take their complaints to a court of law—the yakuza drew the line at the bumbling idiots depicted in The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion. Late one night, three young men jumped Itami and slowly carved up his face.

By scarring Itami for life, the yakuza gangsters provided evidence not only of their toughness but of his. Itami wore the scars with pride. This too has precedent. German duelers in the 19th century prized Rennomierschmiss, or bragging scars. It was a great disappointment if a hit didn’t scar properly, and young men were known to tamper with the healing process, purposely patching themselves together with rough stitches. Gambetta calls the result “an upscale tattoo, borne by a generation of doctors and jurists and professors and officials, certifying the proprietor’s claim to both manly stature and cultivated rank.” The scars, says Gambetta, might be properly classified as “the joint production of a signal of courage—I slash your face, you slash mine.”

 If you aren’t a properly tattooed or otherwise credentialed tough guy, scars can act as more than mere symbols of courage. They can also be signs of madness—a useful and understudied tool in the symbolic criminal conversation. Here Gambetta borrows from the work of Marek Kaminski, a sociology student imprisoned in Poland in the 1980s for “anti-Communist activities.” Kaminski lays out a jailhouse hierarchy in which 70 percent are grypsmen, or initiated gang members, 1 percent to 2 percent are “fags,” and the rest are “suckers,” outsiders vulnerable to all manner of prison predation. Then he tells a story about a man named Prince.

Thrust into a new Polish prison cell—which, as usual, was open-plan and almost completely unsupervised, as the guards were afraid to enter—Prince is immediately asked if he is a grypsman. He says no, then pulls a razor from his cuff and shouts, “I am a sucker, sucker-madman!” He threatens the assembled grypsmen and then cuts himself until he bleeds on the floor. The grypsmen back off: “OK, you are a sucker but you are a tough-boy. You are kind, we are kind. Now clean it up.” Kaminski later relates his discovery that Prince is crazy like a fox, wielding his razor only when he knows he is entering a tough room. (Gambetta dryly notes that many of these strategies work in another environment with a stable population and forced attendance: school.)

The (acknowledged) ghost inside Codes of the Underworld is the Nobel-winning economist Thomas Schelling, who has for decades been applying this kind of economic analysis to the coordination and signaling problems inherent in bank robberies, blackmail, and negotiations. Schelling’s 1960 book about the nuclear arms race, The Strategy of Conflict, centers around those paradoxical situations when it makes sense to impose limits on yourself in order to improve your negotiating position. His famous “madman theory” holds that a “careless or even self-destructive attitude toward injury…can be a genuine strategic advantage.”

Guided by those words, Gambetta sets out to illuminate the world inhabited by these face-tattooed, duel-scarred, razor-brandishing inmates. The result is a book that explains the hidden logic of their behavior in language intelligible to those of us who make it a point to steer clear of both well-armed dictators and well-decorated mafiosi.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at reason.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    Cool article.

  • wingnutx||

    I'd like to read the book.

    I've seen a lot of books & articles get tattooing all wrong. For example, I keep seeing that spiderwebs on the elbow mean that one is either in a white-power gang or is a confirmed killer for his gang. This was actually a pretty popular tattoo when I was a fleet sailor, mostly with Boatswain Mates. It's a classic.

  • ||

    I don't know about that, but I do know that one time I was sitting next to a guy with a spiderweb tattoo on his neck--- and it took me about 5 minutes to see the swastika buried in the center of the web.

    So I can see how the media would get it wrong.

  • Just a Question||

    Do people in the Navy and Coast Guard ever kill people?

  • ||

    I've been watching the M-1 Affliction challenge on HDNet. There's a heavyweight from (I think) Finland who has the web tattoo. I said to my wife during one of his fights "does that look like a swatstika in the middle of that?" About thirty seconds later I saw the full on Nazi flag on his chest and "white power" across his back. Let's see if I can find his profile...

    Here it is:

    http://www.m-1global.com/lang/.....-valtonen/

    Now to see if I can find a pic with the tats...

    Here's one:

    http://ballhype.com/story/mma_.....is_nazi_1/

  • Hugh Akston||

    That's lame. If there's one person anyone wants to see get the shit kicked out of him, it's the guy with the nazi ink.

  • ||

    Too bad they don't have a personal video profile for this white bag of douche

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFR9xkZm4ck

  • Juvenile Lurker||

    Q: Have a scar?

    A: No thanks, I don't smoke.

  • Warty||

  • ||

    "worse then getting an eyelid tattoo"

    s/b "worse than"

    Just trying to be helpful.

  • ||

    Who in their right mind would want tats.

    Has anybody noticed that there are a growing number of "professional ladies" who advertise that they are "tat free?" They have certainly found a market in fellas like me who prefer a lady to be tat free. To be sure, it is not a prerequisite, but it sure has appeal to me.

  • Jack the Ripper||

    It's a lot harder for the bobbies to identify the body...

  • Pope Jimbo||

    When I was a youngster scrounging around Asia with Uncle Sam's Misguided Children, I sort of wanted a tat.

    I never got one because I either had no money, or the only available parlors were so dirty that I didn't dare get one.

    Back then though, you had to be in the service, a biker gang, or prison to really get a tattoo. It - to borrow from the article - signaled to everyone that you had made some unfortunate choices in your past and were capable of making more in the future.

    No that every sissy-ass jerk has one, I am so glad that I missed out. I love looking at all those arm tattoos of thorns or barbwire around saggy 30-something biceps.

    The thing I really miss about the old days, is that if you saw a gal with a tattoo in the 80's you knew - KNEW - you were in for a wild night. Now? Meh. All you know for sure is that peer pressure works on them to a certain degree.

  • ||

    I might add that those who choose to get tats are not unique or independent or original or creative because they have tats. IMO, it is a major sign of conformity-not individuality.

  • ¢||

    I'll tattoo Pingback on your whole IT staff's foreheads for a dollar.

  • monolith||

    In Ed Bunker's prison memoir he says you need to judge your reputation for violent unpredictability.
    go too far and they might kill you because they can never feel safe when they are around you.

  • The Bearded Hobbit||

    Never understood the desire for permanent skin mutilation. Different strokes etc, I guess.

    Loved the line the The Wedding Crashers, tho, "Tattoo on the lower back? Might as well be a bullseye"

    ..."tat free" Hobbit

  • BakedPenguin||

    Back in the early 90's, a band I was in all went to go get tattoos. I bowed out. Even if the art is decent, time will make it ugly, and paying $200+ while rolling the dice on getting hepatitis doesn't strike me as really worthwhile.

    My brother has a huge one on his shoulder commemorating his daughter's birth. Personally, I think having the daughter would be enough to remind you, but whatever...

  • guy in the back row||

    I served on a jury for a murder case 10 years ago. We voted to convict, and besides the evidence I think the fact the guy had tears tattooed below his right eye influenced the jury.

  • BakedPenguin||

    [The yakuza] also amputate all or part of a pinky finger.

    If the movies (Fukasaku, Suzuki) are to believed, they also do this as atonement for infractions not serious enough to warrant execution.

  • BakedPenguin||

    GIBR - I had a friend who had a tear-shaped birthmark right below his eye. I always worried for him if he ever got mistakenly arrested...

  • ||

    or wound up in the wrong neighborhood...

  • ||

    I'll get a tattoo when it incorporates the code to bring me back from the dead.

  • ||

    On the other hand, der Schmiss from Heidelberg would rule.

  • Mike the Knife||

    I had the opportunity to hang out with a "Schlangender Burschenschaft" (dueling fraternity) during my time in Heidelberg, and a friend has a small "Schmiss", but, alas, it's just above his hairline. I have seen a few fairly dramatic scars- most received when the duellist had gone beyond the mandatory number of duels (for his respective organization) & pursued the "sport" to a higher level.

  • Agent Provacateur||

    Back in the 80s a friend of mine bought a tattoo gun off of a recently released "patient" from the State Hospital for the criminally insane.It was really cool prison-tech.Made from an 8-track tape player motor,sewing machine needle,ballpoint pen,soda straw and some other crap.Needless to say,I didn't let him get near me with that thing.He makes a good living as a prominent tattoo artist now.

  • ||

    I agree with those who realize, who wants a permanent skin alteration? I already have plenty of those--they're called scars. And at least my scars come with cool stories and they're not shaped like the latest fad, to become embarrassing in 5 years when said fad is hella over.

    However, I would consider a large tattoo of Gabe Kaplan on my ass for the lulz.

  • ||

    I have Horshack on mine. It drives the chicks wild.

  • ||

    No Freddy Washington? Racist.

  • IceTrey||

    a “careless or even self-destructive attitude toward injury…can be a genuine strategic advantage.”

    Sounds like Iran. Maybe the politicos should read this book.

  • ||

    a “careless or even self-destructive attitude toward injury…can be a genuine strategic advantage.”

    My father had a friend in the Marine Corps who had that theory about geopolitics. He thought the thing to do was for the US to nuke New York and then tell the rest of the world they would be next if anyone ever fucked with us. He hated New York, so nuking the place wouldn't have bothered him. And if we were crazy enough to nuke our largest city, who would ever be stupid or crazy enough to mess with us?

  • ||

    Wow, now that is one scary looking dude! Can yew imagine??

    RT
    www.be-invisible.ua.tc

  • Rhywun||

    I have lots of friends who went crazy with the tatts. I'm anti-tatt myself, if only because I find them unattractive, especially when they detract from otherwise alluring body parts.

  • ||

    No one wants to hear about your ankle fetish, Rhywun.

  • ||

    Tats are tacky. I'm so ready for that stupid fad to be over.

    -jcr

  • ||

    Agreed. Five years from now it won't be cool or "non-conformist" anymore. I somehow managed to do 4yrs in the Navy without getting a single tat. All of my buddies got em, some covered in them. For some reason, I have never met someone 50 or over with a tattoo that still thought it was a good idea that they got it.

  • Zeb||

    Five years from now it won't be cool or "non-conformist" anymore

    But won't that make it non-conformist and therefore cool again?

  • ||

    touche!

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    My arms are covered in tattoos. For the most part, I don't regret it.

  • ||

    Just remember that broken bones heal, chicks dig scars, and the United States has the highest doctor to daredevil ratio in the world.

  • Zeb||

    I like tattoos. Though I do marvel at the stupidity of a lot of the trends that are around now. I can't imagine that the dude with the "Monster" energy drink logo is not going to feel like an ass in 5 years.

  • ReAnimator||

    My uncle who is a police captain has several tattoos...which may be enough to label them officially uncool.

  • Kaisha ||

    I'm thinking of tattooing my resume on my back. At functions I can just take my shirt off when they want to see my qualifications. How sick would that be?

  • ||

    One earlier comment said it all, criminals with tats are easier to identify, so it seems that criminals should go without tats to help their identity be hidden and avoid capture etc.

  • ||

    Sometimes people think,speak and act irrationally. In some part of the world, Tattoo is Taboo.. In Japan, Tattoo is identical to breville toaster oven Yakuza.

  • ||

    Is there a chapter on Congress?

  • ||

    I stopped reading at "concrete shoes." Clever idea for a story but it comes off like someone who doesn't know how to swim writing about deep-sea diving. I doubt this woman has ever gotten a speeding ticket.

  • ||

    I had a patient in my Forensic Unit (criminal insane) who plucked both his eyes out. Crazy, everyone said. Like a fox, I said: he got to stay in a nice comfy hospital forever, instead of going back to prison, this time for a particularly brutal sexual assault on his mother. "Dysfunction" often has very real benefits.

  • miguel guanipa||

    Charming. Especially the pinky finger part.

  • Steve H||

    A lot of the information about the Yakuza in this article is incorrect.* Cutting off pinkies is punishment for screwing up. Cutting it off yourself means that you took responsibility for the screwup. And the Yakuza still operate openly. You can find their local office by looking for the sign on the door. Like the Mafia of old most of what they do is above the board, and they are generally really active in the community. (In supporting ways, not just cutting people ways.)

    The tattoo thing is correct in Japan, and unlike America, tattoos still have significant cache. For example most health clubs,spas, gyms, etc. will bar anyone who has a visible tattoo. Even an 18 year-old girl with a butterfly on her wrist.

    However all of the incorrect stuff just serves to make the Yakuza sound like giant badasses, so it supports the article.

    *My information is from personal experience and not from pop culture references.

  • Betty||

    Thank you!

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I'm not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It's just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight...the Bible's books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on...the Bible's books were written by people with very different mindsets.

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  • Mattress Queen||

    Interesting article...also interesting that most rappers nowadays get away with facial tattoos and minimal jail time....

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  • seanmartinsville7||

    Tattoos on the face is a sign of subtle problems. Hopefully, it will never catch on.

  • رش مبيدات||

    A lot of the information about the Yakuza in this article is incorrect.* Cutting off pinkies is punishment for screwing up. Cutting it off yourself means that you took responsibility for the screwup. And the Yakuza still operate openly. You can find their local office by looking for the sign on the door. Like the Mafia of old most of what they do is above the board, and they are generally really active in the community. (In supporting ways, not just cutting people ways.)

    شركة تنظيف خزانات بالرياض شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياضThe tattoo thing is correct in Japan, and unlike America, tattoos still have significant cache. For example most health clubs,spas, gyms, etc. will bar anyone who has a visible tattoo. Even an 18 year-old girl with a butterfly on her wrist.

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