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Unexpectedly, my posts on prison tattoo photography have been very popular – [1], [2], [3], and [4]. Continuing the theme, I’d like to feature the work of Herbert Hoffman.

From an early age, Herbert Hoffmann (1919-2010, b. Pommern, Germany) was drawn to people with tattoos. He was educated in Berlin. During the Third Reich, tattooed people were seen as criminals and consequently, the tattoo culture diminished. In 1940, Hoffman signed up for basic military service with the German army. From 1945-49, Hoffmann was held prisoner of war by the Russians. When he returned to Germany he worked as a travelling salesman, and encountered many persons who were tattooed despite the old Nazi ban. While working Hoffmann always took along his camera and photographed the people he met. In 1961, Hoffmann opened his own tattoo studio in Hamburg, Germany.


Hoffman distinguishes himself from photographers who look in at the tattoo culture from the outside. He defined the culture and then adopted the lion’s share of documenting it. Hoffman’s DIY method is like that of graffiti artists who return with a camera to make images of the surfaces which they have earlier decorated. (Notably, Hoffman’s tattooing preceded the rise of graffiti and its recognition as art/culture in the 1970s/80s.)

Aged 91, Hoffman passed away on June 30th of this year. Despite the indisputable novelty of his photographs, and his central position to German tattoo culture, Hoffman only received mainstream recognition very late in life. No surprise really; Hoffman was working with the maligned, ‘lowly vernacular’ medium of photography, to record the re-emerging tattoo subculture.


Hoffman’s images are on show at Ten Haaf Projects in Amsterdam until December 18th. Ten Haaf Projects, Laurierstraat 248, 1016 PT Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Tel: 020-4285885 And how good is this? At the Ten Haaf opening in October artist Henk Schiffmacher tattooed Hoffman’s designs on exhibition goers.


Hoffman’s books are here and a picture gallery of Hoffman’s life here.

Selected Solo Exhibitions: 2010 ‘Living Pictures’ Ten Haaf Projects Amsterdam; 2010 ‘St Pauli’s Souvenirs’ Galerie Lehmann Berlin. Publications: 2008 ‘Skinscapes, Die Kunst der Körperoberfläche’, text Herald Kimpel, Hrsg: H . Kimpel, Marburger Kunstverein Marburg; 2006 ‘Signs and Surfaces’ by Andreas Fux, Herbert Hoffmann, Ali Kepenek Hrsg Künstlerhaus Bethanien Berlin; ‘Mensch! Photographien aus Dresdner Sammlungen’, Hrsg: Wolfgang Hesse und Katja Schumann; ‘Kupferstichkabinett’, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.



Reading the Goethe-Institut Fashion Scene article about Haeftling designers in Berlin, I thought it was an Onion style send up. “Prisoner chic” sounds like something straight out of satire, but I guess I was snoozing when this hit the news wires in 2003.

Haeftling (translated as ‘Prisoner’) employs inmates across Europe to manufacture clothing and housewares inspired (they say) by prison life, “The garments are highly functional and have a classic and timeless cut. Only high-grade, rugged fabrics are used in manufacturing.”

Well, whatever you say. I actually don’t mind how they market it, I am just pleased they support prison reform, the abolition of the death penalty, political prisoners rights and a philosophy of rehabilitative justice.

Haeftling Tray

Haeftling Tray

But let’s not kid ourselves. This project was borne of commercial interests. “It began in the JVA (Justizvollzugsanstalt/prison) Tegel and developed into an international undertaking. More and more prisons have joined and today production is even taking place elsewhere in Europe. One Bavarian prison supplies honey from its own two colonies of bees; a prison in Switzerland even has its own vineyard and exports its own red (Pinot Noir) and white wine (Müller Turgau).” (source)

Karola Schoewe, Haeftling’s PR & communications manager says, “On the whole, the prisons are all very helpful,” says  “There are some prisons that have very good production capacities for making homeware.”

Schoewe then marries the business speak to social responsibility speak, “Through its production, Haeftling is creating measures that help to support rehabilitation processes.”

Haeftling Espresso

Haeftling Espresso

Without seeing Haeftling’s account-books or sitting in on a board meeting, I have no way to tell if resources and profits are divvied up in a way that benefits prisoners more then in the state run prison industries. This was the situation in July 2003

With 40% of Tegel’s prisoners unemployed, the Haeftling project has come as a welcome boost to the jail. The prisoners get an allowance of €26 a month, but ones working on the clothing line can earn up to €12.50 a day. The cash from the sales is divided among the bankrupt city of Berlin, the prison and the inmates.

(Author’s Note: €12.50 is substantial pay compared to American prisons.)

Prison industries are a divisive issue. For some they are the perfect use of prisoners’ time and energies developing job skills, work community & self-esteem. To others prison industries are a modern slave labor exploiting societies’ self-created incarcerated class.

Both viewpoints have legitimacy, but the first makes a prior assumption that could be misleading – that work programs are the only means to provide skills, community or self-worth. Education does this too.

But educating someone instead of putting them to work is going to cost a prison authority rather than generate it wealth.


Generally, I am unnerved by the disconnect between the reality of incarceration and its representation to consumers,

Shoppers at the Haeftling store can have Polaroid mug shots of themselves made, holding a plaque with their names spelled out in white block letters. The stereo system plays the soundtrack of the Coen brothers’ prison film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” And customers browse through racks of striped jackets and shirts.

Then again, Klaus-Dieter Blank, of Berlin’s Tegel Prison states the success of the label’s online store has meant that people are beginning to understand “what goes on behind the walls”. Haeftling features on the Tegel Prison website.

Is there too much space here for consumers to create their own version of prison life? What is included and/or played down in the minds of consumers? Are they being coerced and sold a disingenuous view along with that ‘rugged’ product?


"Justiz 82" Scratchy Blanket. Haeftling Product

We can assess this a number of ways – rehabilitative worth, public awareness worth, benefits to state finances, tax-payer savings, external benefits of development in social entrepreneurship.

But essentially, we must ask, “Does this enterprise help reduce prison populations by reducing recidivism? It MUST be compared to other rehabilitative programs. The purpose of prisons the world over should be to create societies where prisons are no longer necessary.

How do you judge this type of enterprise?


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