Criminal Justice

Tattoo Tuesday: Now With Mad Scientists!


In the December issue of Reason, I wrote about the universe of underworld tattoos—those useful inkblots that indicate to those in the know who you were in prison with, and why, and what kind of employment you might be seeking, all without the trouble of taking out an ad in the classified section.

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.

Today, via the Twitter feed of Brock N. Meeks, comes the chance to take a look at some of those tattoos, removed from criminals and autopsied dead bodies, creepily preserved in formaldehyde, and analysed for patterns by the Department of Forensic Medicine at Jagiellonian University in Krakow:

The majority of the prison tattoos represent connections between the convicts. Besides gestures and mimics it is a kind of secret code—revealing why 'informative' tattoos appeared on uncovered body parts: face, neck or arms.

The collection was created with a view to deciphering the code—among prisoners known as a 'pattern language'. By looking closely at the prisoners' tattoos, their traits, temper, past, place of residence or the criminal group in which they were involved could be determined. 

In Poland, tattoos are common among criminals….In the 1960s in Poland, getting a prison tattoo required special skills and criminal ambition – it was a kind of ennoblement, each tattoo in the criminal world was meaningful.

yup, that's human skin

See the whole slide show here.

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 or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

23 responses to “Tattoo Tuesday: Now With Mad Scientists!

  1. “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.”

    I know several people with face-tats. Both men and women. and what it says is that they are in a punk band or are freinds of the band. They are all very good people.

    1. It does actually signal that a person is not interested in “square”, normal, establishment employment, though.

    2. It also signals that they are either (a) independently, fabulously wealthy, so that they will never in their life need a job, (b) incredibly short-sighted, in that they believe they will never in their life need a job, or (c) planning to make their criminal hobbies a career.

      1. Or (d) successful tattoo artists, musicians…

  2. My prison tattoo is a detailed representation of me rising from the grave and stabbing the forensics professor who harvested my prison tattoo for his public grant fueled study of prison tattoos.

  3. Hey, throw in a little salt with that formaldehyde…tattoo jerky!

  4. Maybe we should make smokers get the Surgeon General’s warnings tattooed on their hide.

  5. Ilsa Koch was unavailable for comment.

  6. Can you make human rinds? Would the ink make them taste different? I WANT TO EAT YOUR DEEP-FRIED TATTOOS! GIVE THEM TO ME!

    1. Dude, you better get your blood sugar under control.

    2. Of course. Where you been?

      1. Work. It’s horrible when you actually have to do your job. I’ll make those bastards pay, though. Oh, they’ll pay dearly.

  7. No Eastern Promises references? Not even a Sin Nombre reference?

    1. They are just a bunch of pop-cult savages, Artie.

      1. Heh heh heh. Apparently this film is really hard to find.

    2. I was reminded of Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

  8. WTF is with skinning these people? Couldn’t they just take a fargin’ picture?

    1. In 1900? Photography was pretty primitive, and it was long before color film.

      And no, I’m not quite that old.

      1. Modern chemistry was available by 1900, and the 1880’s dry plate glass negative and gelatin, collodion, and matte collodion printing out papers could reproduce a tattoo in great detail. Even 1860s wet plate glass negative and albumen papers would resolve well enough for a tattoo.

        Although, you are correct about color. Autochromes, the first commercial color process was not widely available until 1906.

        And I think they skinned people because it was funnier than taking a picture. Or he could have be bound for an application of anthropodermic bibliopegy

  9. Couldn’t they just take a fargin’ picture?

    How do you make a lampshade with a picture?

  10. So we have a friend who is 16 and my wife has made me promise not to tell her that I think that a warning with her birthday should be tattooed to her bottom.

  11. tattoo is art!and if you like this kind of art you must make a really big and detailed tattoo in your body!

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.