Tattoos are commonly used among criminals to show gang membership and record the wearer’s personal history—such as his or her skills, specialties, accomplishments, and convictions. They are also used as a means of personal expression. Certain designs have developed recognized coded meanings. The code systems can be quite complex and because of the nature of what they encode, the tattoos are not widely recognized. Tattooing is forbidden in most prisons. It is therefore done in secret, with makeshift equipment. Some tattoos are made using melted rubber from the sole of a shoe, soot and/or ash, and urine for some sterilization.
Prison tattooing is the practice of creating and displaying tattoos in a prison environment. They often signal gang membership, form a code, or have hidden meanings. However, due to the lack of proper equipment and sterile environments in prison, the practice poses health risks. Since tattooing in prison is illegal in the United States, the inmates do not have the proper equipment necessary for the practice. This forces inmates to find ways to create their own tattooing devices out of their belongings. Improvised tattooing equipment has been assembled from materials such as mechanical pencils, magnets, radio transistors, staples, paper clips, or guitar strings. The ink used also needs to be improvised, either taken from pens or made using melted plastic (such as checkers or chess pieces), soot mixed with shampoo, or melted Styrofoam. Prison tattooing is not generally done freely, and the tattooists are normally paid with anything from stamps and cigarettes to actual cash.
There are many different symbols and numbers that represent multiple gangs or groups. Certain images like spider webs can represent the length of sentences. One of the most well-known tattoos is the teardrop tattoo (which can mean the wearer has killed someone). Tattoos are also used to communicate who the inmates are as people – for example, white supremacists will display prominent tattoos to show their beliefs. Some common symbols used in this manner are the number ’311′ (representing the KKK), the percentile ’100%’ (a white supremacist indicator of racial purity), Valknuts (an old Norse symbol),swastikas, three dots arranged as a triangle (meaning ‘mi vida loca’ or ‘my crazy life’), a clock with no hands (to show the wearer is ‘doing time’), spider webs, or the number 13. Another common prison tattoo is the five dots tattoo, a quincunx usually placed on the hand, with different meanings in different cultures.
UV tattoos are tattoos made with a special ink that is visible under an ultraviolet light (blacklight). Depending upon the ink, they can be nearly invisible in non-UV environments, thus they are a popular consideration for people seeking a subtler tattoo. They are particularly popular in the raver subculture. Although the tattoos are sometimes considered invisible in normal light, scarring from the tattoo machine in the application process may remain, and therefore still show. A UV tattoo becomes visible under blacklight, when it glows in colors ranging from white to purple, depending on the ink chosen. Colored ink is also available, where the ink is visible in normal light (as with a regular tattoo) but the ink will glow vividly under UV light. However, some UV inks are not as bright under normal light as normal tattoo ink and are considered not as vibrant.
The blue star tattoo legend frequently surfaces in American elementary and middle schools in the form of a flyer that has been photocopied through many generations, which is distributed to parents by concerned school officials. It has also become popular on Internet mailing lists and websites. This legend states that a temporary lick-and-stick tattoo soaked in LSD and made in the form of a blue star (the logo of the Dallas Cowboys is often mentioned), or of popular children’s cartoon characters, such as Mickey Mouse and Bart Simpson, is being distributed to children in the area in order to get them ‘addicted to LSD.’
The legend is present also in Brazil as well as Portugal, at least since the 1970s. Flyers detailing the hoax circulated in the UK during the 1980s and 1990s.
Teardrop tattoos originated as a prison tattoo that was forced on some inmates by their ‘Sugar Daddy’ to signify sexual ownership and to permanently mark that person as a ‘sissy.’ The tattoo was later appropriated in the Chicano gangs of California by members who had killed another person, particularly while in prison. The tattoo can also mean that a family member, close friend or fellow gang member has died, frequently in a gang related incident. In the United Kingdom, the tear tattoo can indicate someone that has spent time in a young offenders prison. In the U.S., A fully inked in teardrop can mean that a murder was committed. If the teardrop is clear in the middle, it can indicate an attempted murder, or that a loved one was murdered. A tear drop that is empty at the the top and inked at the bottom can indicate that a loved one was murdered and the killer was himself murdered by the tattoo wearer.
Darrell Lance Abbott, also known as Diamond Darrell and Dimebag Darrell (1966 – 2004), was an American guitarist and founding member of the groove metal band Pantera, as well as Damageplan. Abbott also contributed to the record Rebel Meets Rebel, a collaboration between Pantera and outlaw country music singer David Allan Coe. Darrell is considered to be one of the driving forces behind groove metal (a subgenre of heavy metal characterized by a slightly slower tempo than most metal). Abbott was shot and killed while on stage during a Damageplan performance on December 8, 2004, at the Alrosa Villa in Columbus, Ohio.
Darrell was born to Carolyn and Jerry Abbott, a country musician and producer. He met his long time girlfriend Rita Haney in the third grade. He took up guitar when he was 13, and his first guitar was a Hondo Les Paul he got with a small amp. He won the guitar he is most known for, a Dean Guitars ML, at a local guitar competition held at The Agora Ballroom in Dallas. He sold the ML to luthier [guitar designer] Buddy Blaze who installed a Floyd Rose bridge on it (a type of locking vibrato arm to add wobble) and gave it Dimebag’s signature lighting bolt paint job and then gave it back to him years later. Coincidentally, his father had bought him a cherryburst finish Dean ML standard the morning before the competition.
Marc Quinn (b. 1964) is a British artist and one of a loose group known as the Young British Artists. He is known for ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’ (a sculpture of Alison Lapper, an English artist who was born without arms) and ‘Self’ (a sculpture of his head made with his own frozen blood). Quinn has used blood, ice, and faeces to make sculptures; his work sometimes refers to scientific developments. Quinn’s oeuvre displays a preoccupation with the mutability of the body and the dualisms that define human life: spiritual and physical, surface and depth, cerebral and sexual. Quinn’s sculpture, paintings and drawings often deal with the distanced relationship we have with our bodies, highlighting how the conflict between the ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ has a grip on the contemporary psyche. In 1999, Quinn began a series of marble sculptures of amputees as a way of re-reading the aspirations of Greek and Roman statuary and their depictions of an idealized whole.
‘Self’ is described by Quinn as a ‘frozen moment on lifesupport,’ the work is carefully maintained in a refrigeration unit, reminding the viewer of the fragility of existence. The artist makes a new version of ‘Self’ every five years, each of which documents Quinn’s own physical transformation and deterioration. Self, like many other pieces by the YBAs, was bought by Charles Saatchi (in 1991 for a reputed £13,000). Despite reports that the piece had melted, it was exhibited by Saatchi when he opened his new gallery in London in 2003. In 2005, ‘Self’ was sold to a US collector for £1.5m. The National Portrait Gallery in London acquired the 2006 iteration of ‘Self.’ His portrait of John E. Sulston, who won the Nobel prize in 2002 for sequencing the human genome on the Human Genome Project, is also in the National Portrait Gallery. It consists of bacteria containing Sulston’s DNA in agar jelly. ‘The portrait was made by our standard methods for DNA cloning,’ writes Sulston. ‘My DNA was broken randomly into segments, and treated so that they could be replicated in bacteria. The bacteria containing the DNA segments were spread out on agar jelly in the plate you see in the portrait.’
Day of the Dead (‘Día de los Muertos’) is a Mexican holiday where people gather to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The celebration takes place on November 1, in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 2). Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars honoring the deceased using edible sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed and visiting graves with these as gifts. They also leave possessions of the deceased. Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Queen of the Underworld). The holiday has spread throughout the world: In Brazil, ‘Dia de Finados’ is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and, at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their dead loved ones. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe, and similarly themed celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures.
The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to its indigenous pagan cultures. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors had been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2,500–3,000 years. In the pre-Hispanic era, skulls were commonly kept as trophies and displayed during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. The festival that became the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the goddess known as the ‘Lady of the Dead,’ corresponding to the modern Catrina (one of the most popular figures of Day of the Dead celebrations). In most regions of Mexico, November 1 is to honor children and infants, whereas deceased adults are honored on November 2. This is indicated by generally referring to November 1 mainly as ‘Día de los Inocentes’ (‘Day of the Innocent’) but also as ‘Día de los Angelitos’ (‘Day of the Little Angels’) and November 2 as ‘Día de los Muertos’ or ‘Día de los Difuntos’ (‘Day of the Dead’).
Alt porn tends to involve members of such subcultures as goths, punks, or ravers and is often produced by small and independent websites or filmmakers. It often features models with body modifications such as tattoos, piercings, or scarifications, or temporary modifications such as dyed hair. The term indie porn is also sometimes used, though this term is more generally used as a synonym for independent pornography, regardless of affinity with any kind of alternative subculture. While pornography specifically oriented toward alternative culture did not arise until the 1990s, the work of Gregory Dark, David Aaron Clark, Michael Ninn, and Stephen Sayadian are seen by some as predecessors of alt porn. ‘The Cinema of Transgression’ of Richard Kern and Nick Zedd (as well as Kern’s later photographic work) can also be viewed as early examples of alt porn.
The first venue explicitly devoted to ‘subcultural erotica’ was ‘Blue Blood,’ a glossy magazine that began in 1992 and featured models with a goth or cyberpunk look. The biggest market for alt porn, however, has been on the Internet. Other than a few ephemeral personal websites, the earliest explicitly alt porn site was Blue Blood’s GothicSluts.com, established in early 1999. This was followed shortly after by Raverporn.net (later renamed EroticBPM.com), and later followed by NakkidNerds. Supercult began in 2000, followed by SuicideGirls in late 2001, which has grown to become the most popular and financially lucrative alt porn site. The terms ‘alt porn’ was coined in the early 2000s in reference to SuicideGirls, RaverPorn, and similar sites; longer-standing projects, such as ‘Blue Blood,’ generally used terms such as ‘subcultural erotica.’
Lower-back tattoos (often referred to as tramp stamps) are a form of body art that became popular among women in the 2000s and gained a reputation as a feminine type of tattoo. They are sometimes accentuated by low-rise jeans and crop tops, and are considered erotic by some. Concerns have been raised about the use of epidural catheters for women with lower-back tattoos. Although historically men comprised the majority of tattoo recipients, in the early 1990s, the practice gained popularity among women. In the early to mid-20th century, women with tattoos were heavily stigmatized, and were rarely found in middle-class society. Lower-back tattoos were popularized in the early 2000s, in part owing to the influence of female celebrities, including Britney Spears, Christina Ricci, and Pamela Anderson. The popularity of low-rise jeans and crop tops may have also spurred the increase in lower-back tattoos. Another appeal of tattooing the lower back is that there is little fat there, lessening the chance that images will become misshapen over time. Also, the lower back is often concealed, providing women the choice of when to reveal their tattoo.
Medical practitioners who administer anesthesia have questioned whether epidural analgesia should be provided to women with lower-back tattoos. Concerns have emerged that epidural catheters may cause tattoo pigment to enter interspinous ligaments and other areas, potentially leading to health problems. There is general consensus that epidural catheters should not be placed through irritated or infected tattoos. However, harm has not been clearly documented when placing epidural catheters through healthy tattooed skin.
A gang signal is a visual or verbal way gang members identify their affiliation. This can take many forms including slogans, tattoos or hand signs. Many of these, especially slogans and hand signs, have become part of popular culture. ’Throwing up’ a gang sign (e.g., ‘Stacking,’ ‘walk’) with the hands is one of the most known and obvious forms of ‘claiming.’ It is used in many situations where other identifiers may not be possible or appropriate, and it can also show that a gang member is in the area to ‘do business’ as opposed to just passing through. Usually these signs are made by formation of the fingers on one or both hands to make some sort of symbol or letter. It can also serve to relay more specific information, such as what set they represent within a larger gang or in which activities they are currently taking part.
Individual letters can be used to tell stories when flashed in rapid succession, each representing a word beginning with that letter. These signs, because they are displayed only when wanted (as opposed to tattoos), are usually the most consistent across various areas. Many of these hand signals are quite close to other common hand signs, and this can cause confusion among gang members, non-gang members, and anti-gang authorities. ‘Stacking’ is also known as a ‘Page.’ Another identifier that can be displayed only when desired is a gang handshake, which usually includes some component of the gang hand signs and/or other hand and finger symbols.
Mithridatism [mith-ri-dey-tiz-uhm] is the practice of protecting oneself against a poison by gradually self-administering non-lethal amounts. The word derives from Mithridates VI, the King of Pontus (modern-day Turkey), who so feared being poisoned that he regularly ingested small doses, aiming to develop immunity. Having been defeated by Roman general Pompey, legend has it that Mithridates tried to commit suicide using poison but failed because of his immunity and so had to resort to having a mercenary run him through with his sword. There are only a few practical uses of mithridatism. It can be used by zoo handlers, researchers, and circus artists who deal closely with venomous animals. Mithridatization has been tried with success in Australia and Brazil and total immunity has been achieved even to multiple bites of extremely venomous cobras and pit vipers. Venomous snake handler Bill Haast used this method. Snake handlers from Burma tattoo themselves with snake venom for the same reason. Mithridatism is also used to treat peanut allergies.
It has been suggested that Russian mystic Rasputin’s survival of a poisoning attempt was due to mithridatism, but this has not been proven. Indian epics talk about this practice too. It has been said that, during the rule of the king Chandragupta Maurya (320-298 BCE), there was a practice of selecting beautiful girls and administering poison in small amounts until they grew up, thus making them insensitive to poison. These maidens were called vishakanyas (visha = poison, kanya = maiden). It was believed that making love with vishakanyas can result in death of their partners, hence they were employed to kill enemies. It is important to note that this practice is not effective against all types of poison. While some (primarily natural) poisons, such as poisonous venoms and tree extracts, can have an immunity built up in this fashion, other (primarily synthetic or base chemical) poisons, such as cyanide, will either pass through the system without leaving any lasting immunity or will build up in the system to lethal levels over time. Certain toxic substances, such as hydrofluoric acid and heavy metals, are either lethal or have little to no effect (or may even be beneficial in low doses, but in such a way as to have no effect on later doses at higher levels), and thus cannot be used in this way at all.
Thief in law, a ‘thief who operates within the law’ or ‘a criminal who obeys The Thieves’ Code”) is a criminal who is respected, has authority and a high ranking status within the criminal underworld in the old Soviet Union, Russia and the republics that formed the former Soviet Union. Thieves in law are the elite of the Russian world of organized crime. According to various Russian news sources there exist hundreds of organized units which retain independence in their actions. Estimates concerning the number of ‘Vory’ throughout the world range from several hundred to over 10,000. Many of thieves in law are no longer exclusively ethnic Russians but are drawn from other nationalities, including those living in other former Soviet states or former Warsaw pact nations such as Poland, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria.
Although Azerbaijan, Armenia, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Georgia, Russia, and Ukraine have long had criminals and bandits, during the disorder of the Russian Revolution of 1917, armed gangs proliferated until they became a very significant factor which controlled society. The criminal culture with its own slang, culture and laws became known as ‘Vorovskoy Mir’ (‘Thieves World’). As the police and court system were re-established after the revolution, the NKVD secret police nearly completely exterminated the criminal underworld. Under Stalin, the forced labor camps (Gulag) overflowed with political prisoners and criminals, and a new organized group of top criminals arose, the ‘vory v zakone,’ or ‘thieves in law.’ They formed as a society for ruling the criminal underworld within the prison camps, ‘who govern the dark gaps in Soviet life beyond the reach of the KGB.’ They adopted a system of collective responsibility, and swore to a code of ‘complete submission to the laws of criminal life, including obligations to support the criminal ideal, rejection of legitimate employment (must support oneself through criminal enterprises) and refusal to participate in all political activities.’
Irezumi [ee-reh-zoo-mee] (literally ‘insert ink’) refers to the insertion of ink under the skin to leave a permanent, usually decorative mark; a form of Japanese tattooing. Tattooing for spiritual and decorative purposes in Japan is thought to extend back to the paleolithic period (approximately 10,000 BCE). Some scholars have suggested that the distinctive cord-marked patterns observed on the faces and bodies of figures dated to that period represent tattoos, but this claim is controversial. There are similarities, however, between such markings and the tattoo traditions observed in other contemporaneous cultures. In the following Yayoi period (c. 300 BCE–300) tattoo designs were observed and remarked upon by Chinese visitors. Such designs were thought to have spiritual significance as well as functioning as a status symbol. Starting in the Kofun period (300–600) tattoos began to assume negative connotations. Instead of being used for ritual or status purposes, tattooed marks began to be placed on criminals as a punishment (this was mirrored in ancient Rome, where slaves were known to have been tattooed with mottoes such as ‘I am a slave who has run away from his master’). The Ainu people, the indigenous people of Japan, are known to have used tattoos for decorative and social purposes, but there is no known relation to the development of irezumi.
Until the Edo period (1600–1868) the role of tattoos in Japanese society fluctuated. Tattooed marks were still used as punishment, but minor fads for decorative tattoos—some featuring designs that would be completed only when lovers’ hands were joined—also came and went. It was in the Edo period, however, that Japanese decorative tattooing began to develop into the advanced art form it is today. The impetus for the art came from woodblock printing and the release of the popular Chinese novel ‘Suikoden,’ a tale of rebel courage and manly bravery illustrated with lavish woodblock prints showing men in heroic scenes, their bodies decorated with dragons and other mythical beasts, flowers, ferocious tigers and religious images. The novel was an immediate success, and demand for the type of tattoos seen in its illustrations was simultaneous. Woodblock artists began tattooing. They used many of the same tools for imprinting designs in human flesh as they did to create their woodblock prints, including chisels, gouges and, most importantly, unique ink known as Nara ink, or Nara black, the ink that famously turns blue-green under the skin.
A.C.A.B. stands for ‘All Cop[per]s Are Bastards.’ Dating from at least the 1940s, and used as a slogan during the UK miners’ strike, A.C.A.B. is an abbreviation often integrated into prison tattoos in the United Kingdom, it is most commonly rendered with one letter between the knuckle and first joint of each finger, alternatively sometimes seen as symbolic small dots across each knuckle. The British Oi! punk band, the 4-Skins, popularized the acronym in their 1980s song of the same name. It is currently in common usage as a phrase and tattoo amongst some ultras ( a type of sports fans renowned for their fanatical and elaborate displays of ‘support’) groups in Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe where most groups are more akin to hooligans than ultras.