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Texas Prison Tattoos.
By  Andrew Lichtenstein.
Page 2.

 Almost all prison tattoos are made by artist convicts using homemade tattoo "guns" (below right). The work is done quickly and secretly. To be caught in a cell shakedown with either a tattoo gun or the fresh ink of a new tattoo results in a "major case". If, after a disciplinary hearing, the prisoner is convicted he may lose privileges, be moved to a more resrictive wing or even be denied parole. In the regulated world of the maximum security penitentiary the handiwork of the tattoo artist is the most respected skill amongst inmates.


Prison logic dictates that restrictions be turned on their head. The more detailed and beautiful a tattoo is, the longer it took and riskier it was to make. Wearing such a tattoo reveals more than a convict's gang affiliation, racial pride or even the skill of the artist. It is a boast of one's ability to break the rules.

Like gang culture, the culture of prison tattoos is circular. Convicts bring with them the fashions of the ghetto and barrio. The motifs of rural Mexican Catholicism have similarly influenced some beautiful prison tattoos. At the same time marks obtained in prison have a significance on the streets. It is almost impossible to go into a tattoo parlour without finding designs that emerged from the long, continuously evolving history of the Texas lock-up.

Some convicts change their life dramatically while incarcerated and are forced to serve out sentences at odds with their body art. There are no tattoo removal services in prison. Rasheed (left), a muslim serving 20 years in Huntsville's Wyn Unit, was a 15-year-old Houston Crip gang member when he killed two people in a drug deal gone bad. Now 21, he reads The Koran, prays facing Mecca and fasts during the month of Ramadan. But still displayed prominently on his chest is the barrell of a gun and the word "kill" tattooed directly above it.