A few days ago, I was struck by an article in The Guardian which reports how Tess Morgan’s 21-year-old son came home from University brandishing a tattooed arm. In her disgust, Tess subjected the poor son to everything from crying to shouting and insults. Her over-reaction, she believes, is the upset of realising her son is growing up. Tess uses some pretty powerful (and quite subjective) arguments to convey her disappointment about this tattoo. However, one particular comment she offers is that:
“Tattoos used to be the preserve of criminals and toffs. And sailors. In the 1850s, the corpses of seamen washed up on the coast of north Cornwall were “strangely decorated” with blue …”
This practice amongst sailors, the article continues, was so that bodies could more easily be identified if the men were lost at sea. Morgan concludes that “tattoos, then, were intensely practical, like brightly coloured smit marks on sheep”. This particular comment got me thinking. I’m currently working on a thesis chapter which focuses on prisoner art – a category into which prison tattoos has more recently come to fall. Although by no means the primary concentration of my chapter, the subject has left me pondering enough to dig a bit deeper.
The proceedings of the court of the Old Bailey in London, reveal that branding of criminals was a common occurrence in the 17th and 18th centuries. Convicts found guilty of manslaughter but not murder were often branded on the thumb (with a “T” for theft, “F” for felon, or “M” for murder), so that they would be unable to receive this benefit more than once. According to the Old Bailey (online), between 1699 and January 1707, convicted thieves were branded on the cheek in order to increase the deterrent effect of the punishment. However, the stigma of this made convicts unemployable and in 1707 the practice reverted to branding on the thumb.
In a similar vein, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, some prisoners at Auschwitz concentration camp were forcefully tattooed with a serial number marking their identity. Originally, numbers were sewn into clothing, but this proved pointless as most clothing was removed on execution. Aside from a certain practicality, individuals were de-humanised, existing only as numbers in a list. Various starting numbers indicated different types of prisoners. In addition, Gypsy prisoners were given the letter Z (“Zigeuner” is German for Gypsy) in addition to the serial number. The tattoos could be found on the chest, but moved to the outer side of the left forearm.
Thus, tattoos have come to be seen as a mark of segregation. Shoham (2010) states that:
“In the criminal world, tattoos have always constituted a metaphor for difference, segregation, and something set apart from the whole. The tattoo represents the different … They symbolize nonconformity … Furthermore, the tattoo attracts the eye to the other, the different, which is inscribed in color on the skin” (p. 987-988).
Thus, perhaps Tess Morgan can be forgiven for recalling the practices of the past where tattoos and other such skin-scarring techniques have deliberately imposed shame upon the individual who bears them. However, modern times have rendered the tattoo a much more complex entity.
Demello (2000) explains that the fact that a tattoo is permanent, painful, and macho inscribes layers of meaning much beyond simply the surface of the skin. For prisoners, a tattoo may symbolise membership of a certain group and one’s place in the hierarchy – which for some is a powerful one. An interesting piece by writer Megan Buskey explains the significance of tattoos in post-World War II Russia, when those who had served in the Soviet army streamed back into prisons, sparking a conflict with prisoners who had remained incarcerated. She describes how “the inmates who volunteered to fight were seen as traitors … Tattoos signaled whether a prisoner was vory v zakone – part of the original criminal elite – or a suka – a bitch – as the criminals who had fought in the war were known”.
Similarly, in Russian prisons, a star tattoo conveys authority, whereas leaders of Russian prisoners in the Israeli prison, are adorned with a skull impaled on a winged knife, up which a crowned snake climbs (Shoham, 2010, p. 993). There are many other works discussing similar examples in different contexts (see Baldaev, et al., various; Lambert, 2003; Phelan and Hunt, 1998).
It is clear that “status symbols certainly hold a place of honor and value in the cultural codes of the underworld” (Shoham, 2010, p. 988). Stripped of their jewellery and clothing, prisoners’ body therefore becomes a marker of identity – a necessity often created by the nature of the environment they find themselves in. By way of conclusion, it is an interesting point to note how the skin becomes a site for both identification and proclamation; enforcing difference through symbols which embody wider cultural ideologies. For Tess Morgan’s son, the tattoo may have been a cosmetic addition … or it could have been an indelible mark upon the one thing that his mother cannot control.
Baldaev, D., Murray, D., Sorrell, S. and Vasiliev, S. (eds.) (various) Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia (various volumes). London: FUEL.
Demello, M. (1993) The Convict Body: Tattooing Among Male American Prisoners, Anthropology Today 9:10-3.
Lambert, A. (2003) Russian Prison Tattoos: Codes of Authority, Domination and Struggle. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing.
Phelan, M. P. and Hunt, S. A. (1998) Prison Gang Members’ Tattoos as Identity Work: The Visual Communication of Moral Careers, Symbolic Interaction 21:277-98.
Shoham, E. (2010) “Signs of Honor” Among Russian Inmates in Israel’s Prisons, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 54:984-1003.