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.

See the whole slide show here.