Symbols of Art and/or Crime: The Complexities of Prison Tattoos and Other Alternative ‘Art’

by Jen Turner

By Araminta de Clermont (Araminta de Clermont) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I was recently struck by the incredible images displayed in a recent article online in The Daily Mail.  The images, taken in the early 1990s by photographer Sergei Vasiliev after he gained access to some of Russia’s toughest prisons, illustrated the variety of tattoos that adorned inmates.  This was at the peak of the gang wars that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union.  Margo Demello (2000) explains that the fact that a tattoo is permanent, painful, and macho inscribes layers of meaning much beyond simply the surface of the skin.  Far from a random collection of meaningless drawings and letters, each tattoo has its own meaning and, to those who know, can be read as a curriculum vitae of its bearer’s criminal past.  For prisoners, a tattoo may symbolise membership of a certain group and one’s place in the hierarchy – which, for some, is a powerful one.  In Russian prisons, a star tattoo conveys authority, whereas leaders of Russian prisoners in the Israeli prison, are adorned with a skull impaled on a winged knife, up which a crowned snake climbs (Shoham, 2010, p. 993).  There are many other works discussing similar examples in different contexts (see Phelan and Hunt, 1998). Stripped of their jewellery and clothing, the prisoner’s body therefore becomes a marker of identity – a necessity often created by the nature of the environment they find themselves in.  The skin becomes a site for both identification and proclamation; enforcing difference through symbols that embody wider cultural ideologies.

With this in mind, I turn attention to a 2011 paper in Geography Compass by Cameron McAuliffe and Kurt Iveson.  This paper critically reviews the literature on graffiti and street art – interrogating the common dialectical positions in talk of graffiti.  McAuliffe and Iveson question whether graffiti is art or crime; public or private expression; ephemeral or permanent; cultural practice or economically important? The article goes some way to uncover the complexity of graffiti’s dynamic and contested geographies.  In the context of today’s discussion the ensuing debates are strikingly similar.  With the practising of tattooing prohibited within prisons, the presence of this body graffiti develops interesting parallels with the sub-culture of artwork that finds itself displayed around urban centres.  Thus, in concluding this short piece it appears there may be call for a similar interrogation into the dialectics of other alternative art forms – of which, tattooing is just one amongst many.

books_icon Cameron McAuliffe and Kurt Iveson, 2011, Art and Crime (and Other Things Besides … ): Conceptualising Graffiti in the City, Geography Compass, 128-143

books_icon Margo Demello, 1993, The Convict Body: Tattooing Among Male American PrisonersAnthropology Today, 9 10-13

books_icon Michael P. Phelan and Scott A. Hunt, 1998, Prison Gang Members’ Tattoos as Identity Work: The Visual Communication of Moral CareersSymbolic Interaction 21 277-98

books_icon Shoham, E, 2010, “Signs of Honor” Among Russian Inmates in Israel’s Prisons, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 54 984-1003

GJ book review Symbols of a life of crime: The fading tattoos on Russia’s gangland prisoners that can be read like a criminal underworld CVDaily Mail Online, 5 December 2012

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