This story was originally published on December 7, 2021.
My first time in prison I told myself that I would never be foolish enough to get tattooed in this atmosphere.
Having received “ink” on the street and having spent years in a tattoo parlor learning how to body pierce, I was aware of the risks involved in getting tattooed in a non-sterile environment.
But the real deterrent wasn’t the possibility of infection, it was the quality of work I assumed about prison ink. It didn’t take long for me to see how wrong I was.
When people think of prison tattoos, green, formless figures come to mind — barbed wire, praying hands holding rosaries, calendar pages falling away and the teardrop “pick ‘n poke” located at the corner of almost every convict’s eye, sometimes in multiples and sometimes colored in.
But these days, the work you can get done can be as intricate and detailed as portraits. Some pieces are so big they can envelope the entire body. These can even be “run” in as little as a few days. It all comes down to prison ingenuity, talent and how much pain a person can stand.
The process in which these tattoos are given and the equipment used to do it under circumstances you cannot imagine is jaw dropping. It’s possible to get a tattoo in prison that rivals a tattoo applied in a professional, accredited establishment. In some instances, it may even be a little better.
Ink sourced by ingenuity
The ink quality determines whether a tattoo will appear on the flesh as it was intended to. Some say a tattoo is only as good as the ink you’re using.
On the inside, we’re limited in what we can use as ink. Some convicts are able to get their mitts on street ink through nefarious resources like corrections officers (COs) or a process that can only happen during visits with a loved one that we refer to as ”out one hole and into another.”
Most prison ink is made with a few simple ingredients. The general consensus is ”the blacker, the better.”
To achieve this coveted color, a convict must acquire soot, black as pitch. One very common recipe to make chain gang ink is water, alcohol and copious amounts of soot. The water should ideally come from a bottle, but it mostly comes from our sinks. The alcohol pads are a little trickier and must be obtained by a medical orderly, an inmate assigned to work the compound’s medical building. Because the alcohol is not in a bottle and comes in pad form, it must be squeezed out of each pad individually.
I can’t tell you exactly how many alcohol pads would be considered optimal, but Creature, the tattooist who did my first pieces while I was housed at Columbia Correctional Institution, liked to use at least 10 of them. This was to sterilize and help break down the soot that would eventually be added to the mix.
Making soot is one of the easiest steps. To get soot, one simply burns things. The burning of these things happens in an enclosed or encapsulated vessel such as a locker or the little cubby hole that houses the roll of toilet paper that is built into our all-in-one sink/toilet units in every two-man cell. This is so the carcinogens and smoke can collect on the top and eventually be scraped onto a piece of paper where it is then transferred into the bottle that will be used to distribute the ink.
Some of the things that convicts burn include checker and chess pieces or any hard plastic. This is generally frowned upon by everyone in the dorm because it stinks to high heaven and is sniffed out by COs within two seconds of their security walkthrough. A better burn is hair grease, which is readily available at the canteen, or if you can get a food service worker to bless you with it, lard burns very cleanly, producing nice black soot that breaks down more evenly, and leaves a room smelling like French fries. This was also Creature’s preferred burn.
Once enough soot is accumulated, it is added to the bottle of water and alcohol along with the hinge pin from a set of fingernail clippers, which acts as an agitator to help breakup soot flakes and particles when the bottle is shaken. You don’t want lumpy ink because it leads to inconsistent line weights and color depth when shading.
According to the many inkslingers that I have spoken to, once the ink is made, it’s best to let it marinate for at least a week while shaking the bottle on a daily basis. The sitting helps break down the soot. If done properly, the ink resembles liquefied onyx when it is poured into a toothpaste cap, which is used as the inkwell. In the clutch though, it can be used immediately.
Hand-sharpening for hours
Making the needle is also easy and quick to make. The sharpening takes the most time. Most chain gang tattoo needles are for one-time use like in the streets. This is especially important inside because unlike the street needles, ours are not usually made of stainless steel, which means they rust easily.
Needles are usually made from one of two things: the spring from a click pen or the spring from a lighter, which is harder to find these days since smoking was banned in Florida prisons.
Both are uncoiled using heat from a flame and straightened to the best of the needle maker’s ability. This is usually the tattooist. Sharpening the needle tip is the most crucial step. If it’s too dull, it will not penetrate the skin. The biggest problem is trying to get a rounded point that is sharp and has no flat spots or burrs to it. This is achieved by hours of rolling the needle tip painstakingly over a rough patch of concrete or a fingernail file from the canteen.
The gun that is used is laughable in its appearance but ingenious in its performance. The heart and soul of a chain gang gun is a simple rotary motor. Normally, they come from facial hair trimmers that are available for purchase through the canteen, but I’ve seen them boosted from a VCR.
On the spindle of this tiny little motor, an offset is attached with Saran wrap or flux from rolls of soldering wire. This is what the needle will be pinned to in order to produce the ”in and out” required to penetrate the skin. The gun also includes wires connected to a battery pack — either AAs or AAAs, both sold at the canteen. Generally, only two batteries are used at a time. Because the motor is so tiny, this is plenty of power to run full blast for upwards of seven hours.
One truth is universally held: too much power means too many RPMs, and too many RPMs means you end up chewing up and mutilating a client’s skin. This is caused by the gun running so hot that the artist can’t keep up. The needle, which is bigger than most needles, goes into the tissue faster than the ink.
There is one cardinal rule when it comes to tattooing: the more holes you make, the more you have to fill.
The barrel of a Bic Round Stic pen is the barrel of the gun. The pen cartridge, which held the ink, is emptied, melted, and stretched in order to provide a channel for the needle to fit through at the end of the pen casing. Ink is drawn into the barrel and held there, constantly covering the needle tip when it is retracted into the barrel.
This whole contraption — barrel, channel and needle — is normally affixed to the gun by something as simple as the broken handle of a toothbrush. A hole the size of the pen barrel is melted into the handle, so the barrel fits snugly into it. The needle is then run through the barrel to the end where the motor’s spindle and offset apparatus is located. The back end of the needle is bent into a 90-degree angle which is run into the offset. Some rubber bands are placed on the needle to keep it in place. The barrel itself can be slid back and forth to control the depth of the needle. Once that is accomplished, the tattoo is ready to be applied.
Stencils drawn on a piece of onion
Some artists freehand their pieces, but I have enough trouble trusting a fellow convict standing within three feet of me, let alone giving me a permanent tattoo without a stencil, so I’ve never gone that route.
A stencil consists of the tattoo design drawn in ink on a piece of onion or transfer paper. The area on the body getting tattooed is covered in a clear antiperspirant available for purchase at the canteen. The ink-lined stencil is applied to the wet area and held there for a few moments. When it is peeled off the image is almost exact except in reverse. This transfer process is the same as in street shops.
One thing that is not the same is the pressure and the pain. Prison ink can be very, very painful. Tattoos are run until they’re finished or until someone taps out.
When you get a tattoo inside, all sorts of interruptions can occur including count times, security checks and shakedowns. In some cases, a spook must be paid. A spook is an inmate that you might hire as a look out for the duration of the tattoo.
Tattooing in prison is frowned upon because of the unsterile environment. The penalty for being caught with fresh ink is a loss of credit towards time served and a minimum of 30 days in Slam. I’m the only unfortunate soul to get hemmed up on a charge for receiving a tattoo. If there are any others, I have yet to meet them.
Finding the right artist
There are some things I’ve noticed about chain-gang tattooing. You can’t judge an artist by the tattoos they have on their bodies. On multiple occasions I have encountered tattooists with the shittiest tattoos you could possibly imagine, only to find out that their work is utterly phenomenal. One of these was a guy in the open bay dorm I was housed in. Carl hated doing tattoos with a passion. The only pieces he did were portraits, and they were amazing. People called him Nikon because his work was that exact, as if you took a black-and-white photo of a loved one and permanently affixed it to your body.
At Columbia Correctional, it took me four months to learn about the artists. I had seven inmates to choose from. Once I decided on Creature, I gave him an idea for my first piece. He had it drawn up within the hour and quoted me a price of $10, or two bags of coffee from the canteen.
The price is another major sell of prison tattoos. I’ve been down for almost a decade spanning two separate prison bits, and I am wet with work, for which I’ve paid almost $200 total. Both my thighs were done for free just because the artist was bored and found me humorous. The price tag should have run over $500 each just on the size alone.
When I entered prison, I said to myself, ”Self, you know tattoos, and we’re not going to get any crappy prison tats to mark such a shitty occasion in our lives, are we?”
But I now have ink covering my entire neck, both sides of my shoulders, my biceps, triceps, inner arms, forearms, left elbow, right hand, chest, entire stomach, both thighs from groin to kneecap, and my left leg and foot.
Would I do it again? The answer is of no consequence. I don’t regret the ink I received, I only regret the places that I received them.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.