The World of Prison Tattoos

In the belly of the beast a convicts tattoos can define him. Being sleeved out or tatted up is a sign of respect or mark of belonging. In the pen dudes wear their territorial and gang affiliations on their sleeves. Their street names are proudly emblazoned across their stomach or backs. As are their girl’s names, the joints they’ve done time at and the number of years they’ve spent inside. Like a mural depicting history a convict’s life can be dissected by checking out the ink on his body. In the nether world of corruption and violence convicts take their tats seriously.

Homies mark themselves accordingly, and they’re not looking for no jive ass sucker to put some inferior work on their skin. Because tattoos are permanent. There’s no laser removal in the joint. And you better be sure you belong to whoever’s sign you’re wearing. Don’t be putting no clover leaf tattoo if you’re not a real AB. Because you will get fucked up. And dudes have been bodied for less than some bad ink. It’s like penitentiary veteran and jail house tattooist Chuck says, “In this environment if your work isn’t stellar or near perfect a dissatisfied customer is apt to stab you in the fucking neck rather than withhold payment, or report you to the better business bureau.”

And Chuck should know. He’s done 16 plus years in prison. From “T.D.C. (Texas Department of Corrections),” he says. “Where I split my time between the Beto #1 unit and the Darrington Unit,” where only the worst of the worst are housed, to “USP Allenwood, FCI Beckley, FCI Beaumont and FCI Gilmer in the feds.” He says.

Being an inkslinger in the pen isn’t a cakewalk. It’s not like the guards set up a shop for tattooists. Everything is done on the downlow as getting a tattoo or inking one is grounds for a shot and trip to the hole. If you are caught that is. “Some guards love to catch someone blasting a piece or getting inked,” Chuck says. “But I’ve had a number watch me work and supply me with latex gloves and alcohol pads. I’ve even had a few who would give me the greenlight to work is I gave them a machine to turn in, as if they found it.”

And the cons in here don’t have a fancy tattoo gun. They make use with what they can find, and put together on the compound. “In T.D.C.,” Chuck says. “Spinner motors were unobtainable in the early 80’s, so I would appropriate electronic relays and remove the 110 volt coils, which I combined with a plastic frame, band steel off vegetable crates, and bic pens cut down for barrels.” Engineering skills come in handy it seems. And in prison a tattooist has to keep the gun hidden too, because guards will confiscate them as contraband in shakedowns. “Every machine is designed for easy quick assembly and disassembly to be hidden in as many places as possible.” Chuck says. “One piece is easier to replace than the whole thing.”

Chuck describes tattooing in prison as “Challenging, sometimes rewarding, but mostly a pain in the ass for many reasons.” The quality and lack of ink foremost. “People make ink by burning articles of plastic, and collecting the soot as a base.” Chuck says. “I’ve made it a habit of never using made ink. It doesn’t flow worth a shit, and I won’t compromise quality art on my time with inferior ink.” But that doesn’t stop a whole a lot of other dudes who perpetrate the myth of jailhouse tattoos with subpar work. Chuck says he uses “India inks such as speedball, black cat or higgins.” Which he can acquire from facilities, or through the art program.

And for the needles Chuck says, “The only material I’ve ever used for needle stock is stainless steel guitar strings (the core).” With music programs at most prisons it’s not that hard to get a pack of strings. And considering that most musicians are frequent customers it makes it real easy. An inkslinger like Chuck doesn’t work cheap though. Like he says, “Good tattoos aren’t cheap and cheap tattoos aren’t good.”

He’ll charge “in the neighborhood of $35 to $100 for a small piece.” And in prison where most dudes are making $25 a month that’s a lot of money. “In the past I’ve priced arm sleeves at $250 per arm, and back pieces at $500 up to $2,000.” Chuck says, “I’ve been paid in everything from commissary like food, cigs, shoes, sweats, radios, stamps to contraband items (i.e. drugs) to money sent from the street to my inmate account.”

As to the pieces he does Chuck says, “They have to have a pretty specific idea of what they want before they even come to talk with me if they want me to design it from mind to paper to flesh.” Chuck specializes in surreal imagery involving guns, demons, inner hells and the cesspits of prison. He adds adamantly. “I will not put wives, or girlfriends names in ink though.” Alluding to all the cover ups he’s done over the years.

And Chuck doesn’t discriminate either. “It doesn’t matter to me who they are, or who they know and run with gang wise.” And he’s tattooed mad gang members with their telltale gang emblems. From Aryan Brotherhood members to Mexican Mafia vatos to Black Gorilla Family members, and even a bunch of wiseguys. But Chuck is very aware of health hazards. “Health hazards have become a major fucking concern in the past fifteen years of so.” He says. “Since I can’t screen nor trust, or believe what anyone says in here I treat everyone the same concerning Hep C and Aids. Everyone gets their own needles and barrels, any ink that hits the cap and isn’t used is thrown away with the cap and latex gloves are always used.” You can never be to careful when you’re dealing with a bunch of junkies, crackheads and lowlives.

Of the drawbacks to slinging ink Chuck says, “Dealing with a bunch of motherfuckers you don’t like nor respect isn’t always kosher. I’ve told some flat out I wouldn’t work on them. And a lot of these dudes don’t have the heart or balls to attempt to jump on me but they’ll rat a motherfucker out in a heartbeat bringing down the heat, so that I’ll have to close shop for a minute.” So being selective does have its price, but like any discerning businessman Chuck is trying to make some money and he does.

“I’ve had good runs where I pulled in over five grand in a three month period.” Chuck says. Because even though most dudes in prison don’t have nothing a few big Willies can keep Chuck busy, and in the money. But dudes are always hustling in here anyways, trying to come up by smuggling drugs, running a parlay ticket, stealing food from the kitchen, manufacturing shanks, or even doing tattoos. But everything has its risks and Chuck has spent plenty of time in the hole. “Suffering for my art,” as he puts it.

And after 16 plus years as a prisoner and inkslinger Chuck looks back. “I’ve always possessed an artistic talent for drawing and painting. That aspect came naturally. Some early tattooing experimentation came at my own expense, but I started tattooing regularly, and making a name for my self in the T.D.C. in the early 80’s.” And Chuck found that, “Besides the money it generated it helped to pass the time.” And inside that is what it’s all about. Making the days go by.

And to his counterparts on the streets Chuck says, “If they had to do arm sleeves, or back pieces with single needle alone, let alone, a portrait they would pull their fucking hair out in frustration.” But still Chuck sites inkslingers like Paul Booth as his role models. “Under the umbrella of creativity, passion of trade and business savvy- definitely Paul Booth.” And with an outdate this year Chuck will be opening his own shop in Ohio – Diabolic Ink. From the penitentiary to the streets you know the Gorilla Convict Blog keeps it real. To see some of Chuck’s work check out the cover art for PRISON STORIES, available at gorillaconvict.com, and also check out his artwork on the other blogs.

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