In 2003, photographer Klaus Pichler met an elderly homeless man whose forearms were covered in tattoos – prison tattoos, as he was explained. This encounter left him curious to find out more about these body ornaments and so he started looking for people with prison tattoos in order to take photos of them. This is how the series (and book) “Inked for Life: the world of prison tattoos” was born.
Since then, Pichler has taken photographs of nearly 150 bearers of tattoos, accompanied by numerous conversations with them. The focus lied in the period from the 1950s to the 1980s, the heyday of the practice of prison tattoos. Back then, getting tattooed in prison was considered to be a sign of belonging to a criminal subculture.
See below for some pictures and quotes:
“Traditionally, tattoing used to be mainly for people from the prison scene, nowadays it’s trendy everywhere. (…) Everybody who got put away for a while just had to have some done. (…) Criminals were criminals and they were tattooed. That was it. We were outsiders, and with our tattoos we made a promise not to join the mainstream”.
Mr. L., 57
“Tattooing mainly used to be common amongst sailors and prisoners. That’s why people used to say they’d been out at sea when they’d been in prison really. Obviously no one believed them. If someone was covered in tattoos people knew he’d been in prison. It was imprinted in people’s minds, tattoos equals criminal, especially amongst the older generation. You could also tell by the way they were done and there’s a certain type of pictures which was only done in prisons. Three dots between the thumb and index finger, a croos, Che Guevara, a dot in the face, a spider’s web, women’s names of a bunch of grapes. All these used to be typical prison tattoos.”
Mr. V., 48
“There was no way of stopping people having tattoos done in prison, not even back in the 70’s when we weren’t allowed to possess ink in prison and needles weren’t available. We just made all the stuff ourselves. The color was made by cutting a piece off the rubber sole of our prison shoes, burning it and covering it with a tin bowl which created a layer of soot on top. We mixed the soot with toothpaste or shampoo. The red color was made using brick dust we scraped off the prison walls. Our needles were usually sharpened paper clips, pieces of wire or guitar strings.”
Mr. J., 54
Site: Klaus Pichler