These ain’t your mini-mall, Hot Topic tattoos. This is the real shit. Prison tattoos. Gangland war cries, affiliations, shibboleths, insignias, tear drop kill counts, hard time tallies, and various forms of outlaw cultural iconography. Leave your skinny jeans at the gate, junior, this is where the ride gets rough. This is the world of real outlaws, shanks, shake downs, hard time, pruno, solitary confinement, work farms, and all that other shit.
My man – we’ll call him “VS” is super talented and a resident at the St. Joseph Shelter for men in Lafayette, LA. After serving time in several Texas and Louisiana penitentiaries over the years, VS is on parole – after a short stint in Lafourche Parish – and is slowly getting his life together. And make no mistake, he’s well on the road to doing it. One day at a time. Dude is great physical shape, polite, sharp, funny, and of course covered in prison tattoos. VS is actually pretty shy about his tattoo art, having had to construct tattoo guns from portable CD players over the years in order to make a little side money in prison, the thought of being a working tattoo artist on the “outside” never really occurred to him until I recently started bugging the hell out of him to get out there and go after it. Think about it. The modern legacy of American tattooing originated from military, seamen, and the penitentiaries. How rad would it be to have a legitimate prison tattoo artist working in your shop? Hit me if you’d be interested in talking to VS and I’ll put ya’ll in touch. In addition, VS has worked 10+ years experience, working as an offshore pump mechanic, roustabout, and rigger. And he’s a good dude.
ANATOMY OF A SCREAM: Interview with an Angola Prison Tattoo Artist (2011)
How did you make your tattoo gun in prison?
You take a CD player and you break it open. You pull the motor out that tracks the eye of the CD and you put a little wheel on there – that’s what drives your needle. Then you take some Saran Wrap and wrap it around the motor with an ink pen cap that you’ve bent into an L-shape. You mount a barrel from an ink pen and cut it to length – about two inches long. And the tip on the ink pen barrel is going to be adjustable. You can turn it in and out. It’ll slide right in. That’s what gives you the depth of your needle. Once you get that mounted, you pull the spring out of the pen and stretch it out with two pair of fingernail clippers and hold it over a candle. You stretch it all the way out – over that flame – till it goes straight and pops in the middle. When it breaks, it’s going to leave a perfect point on both sides – that’s going to be your needle. The heat tempers it into it a perfect point. Then you clip it to length with a some fingernail clippers, slide it through your barrel, drop it in the hub that’s on top of you motor, and then hook the wires to four AA batteries, mount it to your wrist with an ace bandage you’ve got yourself a tattoo gun.
That’s pretty inventive. Where did you learn that?
Man, I been in almost every prison Texas and Louisiana, but I learned it from the Mexican’s at Darrington.
Where and what is that?
Maximum security prison in Texas.
How long ago was that?
So you've been doing this awhile. How many tattoos have you done over the years?
Oh, man. I’ve probably done two or three thousand tattoos in prisons. From single letters to full back pieces and whole sleeves.
How do you charge other prisoners for tattoos?
In the pen, I charge them $75 a sleeve.
That’s a GOOD DEAL!
Well, look where you’re at.
In what form do they pay it?
Depends on where you’re at. Sometimes I get in “commissary” – stuff that they buy you from the prison store. Or I have them have their people send me a money order to my prison account. If it’s just a small piece, you do it for two or three packs of smokes. But it you want a sleeve, it’s $75. When I get the money order, we sit down and do it. You do more single pieces than sleeves, because money’s obviously hard to come by while you’re in prison.
Who were your best customers in prison?
Man, I tattooed everybody: Mexicans Chinese, white, black, all kind of people. I did them all.
What kind of tattoos would they gravitate toward?
Depends on what race they are. Black guys want gangster stuff, mostly names, faces, gang affiliations, pictures of their dead homies, neighborhoods. Stuff that represents where they’re from. Mexican’s like religious imagery, low-rider, and vato stuff. Girls and cars. Lots of Virgin Mary’s, praying hands, Jesus. White dudes go for anything: dragons and knives and guns and swastikas. All kinds of weird stuff like that. Depends on the white guy your talking to.
Lot of AB guys?
You got a lot of diehard AB’ers out there, but you also got a lot of old school southern rockers that want a ZZ Top tattoo.
Were there many AB’ers in Angola?
Not really. Angola isn’t really a gang segregated penitentiary. Not sure why. Maybe because mostly everybody’s got life.
How long have you been drawing and interested in art?
I’m not “artist” artist. I’m a pattern artist. You can give me a pattern and I can duplicate it and put it on you.
Did doing tattoos help you pass the time in prison?
Oh, yeah. It helps you do the time. When they find out you can do tattoos; it’s a never ending process. There is always somebody next on the list who wants to get tattooed. When you don’t have money or support on the outside…that becomes your hustle and trade. It’s like having a job on the street. I’ve had weeks where I made $400 and others where I only made $20. But regardless, I’ve always really enjoyed doing it.