Last week, when Foto8 ran Katarzyna Mirczak‘s article about of the detached and preserved skin of prisoners’ tattoos, I was, of course, compelled to post about it. But, in truth, I need to do a lot more than duly note a story published elsewhere.
HOW HAVE PHOTOGRAPHERS TAKEN ON THE SUBJECT OF PRISON TATTOOING?
The simple answer is with limitations. Photography can describe tattoos very precisely, but description is not comprehension. Often, prison tattoos are a tactically guarded language.
Even if tattoo symbols are deciphered, they may carry different meanings in other cultures. Prison systems exist across the globe, within and “outside” different political regimes, thus the tattoos of each prison culture should be considered according to their own rules – and this caveat applies even at local levels.
Janine Jannsen offers a good introduction to the history of different tattooing cultures. She summarises tattooing in “total institutions” (navy, army, the penitentiary); tattoos and gender; and tattoos and the demarcation of space.
With regards to prison tattoos, maybe it helps us to think of photography as secondary to sociological research. Photography should be thought of as an illustrative tool to aid external inquiry.
That said, there are a number of photographers who have made honorable efforts to describe for a wider audience much of the significance of prison and gang tattoo cultures.
Araminta de Clermont
Donald Weber mixed with former prisoners (‘zeks’) in Russia and concentrated on how their prison tattoos relate to their identity and criminal lifestyle. The relationships of these men with female criminals and prostituted women (‘Natashas’) who become their companions feature in Weber’s complex investigation.
“Some rules are simple: you can only get a tattoo while in prison.”
Rodrigo Abd‘s portraits of Mara gang members in Chimaltenango prison in Guatemala illustrate gang tattoos that are used less and less (from 2007 onwards) due to the unavoidable affiliation and violence they brought the bearer; “After anti-gang laws were approved in Honduras and El Salvador, and a string of killings in Guatemala that were committed by angry neighbors and security forces, gang members have stopped tattooing themselves and have resorted to more subtle, low profile ways of identifying themselves as members of those criminal organizations. Today, gang members with tattooed faces, are either dead, in prison or hiding.”
In 2005, Luis Sinco of the Los Angeles Times documented Ciudad Barrios Penitentiary in El Salvador, home to 900 gang members, many of whom have been deported from the US. Ciudad Barrios incarcerates only members of the MS-13 gang, which traces its roots to the immigrant neighborhoods west of downtown L.A.
“In the woodshop, inmates made a variety of home furnishings, most of which featured the MS-13 logo. The items sold outside the walls help supplement the prisoners’ meager food rations.”
“It was a of microcosm of L.A.’s worst nightmare transplanted. Claustrophobic, crowded tiers led to darkened, bed-less holding cells and fetid latrines overflowing with human waste.”
In 2007, Moises Saman documented the anti-gang activities of Salvadorian Special Police and the inside of Chalatenango prison, El Salvador. At times Saman’s project focused on the tattoos but is more generally a traditional documentary project. More here and here.
Much of Isabel Munoz‘s portraiture deals with markings of the body – what they reveal and conceal. For example, she has previously photographed Ethiopian women and their scarification markings. For her project Maras, Munoz shot sixty portraits in a Salvadorian prison of ex-gang-members. She also photographed the women in these mens’ lives. More here and here.
In El Salvador, Christian Poveda photographed and filmed Mara Salvatrucha (known as MS) and M18, the two Las Maras gangs in open conflict. Poveda wanted to describe their mutual violence and the absence of ideological or religious differences to explain their fight to the death. He described the origins of their war as “lost in the Hispanic barrios of Los Angeles” and as “an indirect effect of globalisation.”
Ann T. Hathaway has collated (disturbing) information and links here about a number of prison tattoo codes.
Russian criminal tattoos have warranted their own encyclopaedia.