Originally appeared in the Cell Block 7 email newsletter
I must say that the concept of prison ink intrigues me. Right now at the wonderful Cell Block 7 Museum, we have a display of some old prison tattoo equipment that was taken from some of the prisoners, but not a lot of information to go along with it. For anyone who has a tattoo, you’ve seen the complicated machines that artists use and the intricate work that they do on every individual person, so how can these things be done inside of prison walls, without that professional equipment? As a prisoner might say, “easy.”
Getting creative and innovative is really the start of the process. Almost every tattoo machine made in prison is made with everyday objects that are available to them. For example, a guitar string sharpened with sandpaper, stereo motor, and ballpoint pen can create a tattoo machine that can hold up to complete an entire back piece. Other than the machine, you are also in need of ink, which is commonly made from the burnt carbon from the inside of a paper bag mixed with chapstick and water. If you have all of these items, then you are open for business.
Prison tattoo-ers only ever had black ink available to them, so the popular tattoo form known as black and grey actually started inside of prison walls. They could make all different shades of black depending on their mixing techniques and were only able to use one guitar string needle at a time which made that tattooing process take a matter of days or weeks rather than just a few hours. Not to say that this process is safe or sanitary, but it is definitely still being done in prisons everywhere.
Also, it’s important and interesting to note that prison ink isn’t always simple designs. Most prison tattoos might have started small, but quickly grew to be complicated, lavish, intricate designs that made up full sleeves and back pieces. In short, prison ink was and still is no joke. Prison tattoo-ers have been known to get jobs at tattoo shops with their newfound skills, and it is a solid way to get the respect of your fellow inmates.
Because of the unsafe nature of prison tattoos, Michigan Department of Corrections is against tattooing in prison, a policy that is strictly enforced.