Skin and self-indictment: prison tattoos, race, and heroin addiction.
Kathy Acker Empire of the Senseless
The tattoo can be understood as a self-inflicted wound--at once a mark that abjects the bearer, and an assertion of control over abjection.
Juliet Fleming "The Renaissance Tattoo"
TATTOOS ARE PERMANENT MARKINGS made by inserting ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment. In the quotation above, Juliet Fleming describes the tattoo as a "self-inflicted wound;' and indeed the word tattoo is taken from the Samoan word tatau, meaning "open wound." Skin, flesh, body: none are synonymous, but they are all inseparable from one another. Flesh precedes in a sense the body, while skin covers flesh. Although this essay focuses on prison tattoos, it should be noted from the outset that the tattoo, in any environment, is typically seen as unnatural. I suggest that in literature, and my focus here is on contemporary literary texts, the tattoo is always represented as unnatural. George Burchett, one of England's best-known tattooists for more than fifty years, writes in the opening pages of Memoirs of a Tattooist:
Only heaven knows exactly when the first man, or half man, first added some natural ornament to his body, or a woman to hers. Not long after, I feel sure, the first primitive attempt was made at putting a permanent decoration, or magic sign, on the skin. If so, it would be a proud claim for tattooing that it was one of man's first conscious acts which distinguished him from the rest of the animal kingdom. (10)
Similarly, Pasi Falk writes of tattooing:
The irreversible reshaping of the body and its permanent marking manifests the stable and static character of relations in society. It also indicates a specific relation to the body as raw material-clay to be moulded and a surface to draw on. This does not imply contempt for the body nor does it express particular adoration of the "natural" body image. The body is an unfinished piece of art to be completed. It must be transformed from nature to culture. (99)
While any division between nature and culture needs to be distinguished from the idea of naturalness, in which nature is turned into a cultural, artificial construction, it is interesting to note that both Burchett, who left school at twelve, and Falk, a professional sociologist, agree on the essential unnaturalness of tattooing--its orientation toward the cultural rather than the natural, its fundamental disdain for naturalness. In literary texts the tattoo is always used to depict a (Western) character's movement away from the natural toward the cultural or from the real to the artificial.
In their essay "Pain and the Mind-Body Dualism: A Sociological Approach;" Gillian Bendelow and Simon Williams suggest that "At the hermeneutical level, pain and suffering give rise to the quest for interpretation, understanding and meaning" (87). In Angela Carter's postapocalyptic novel Heroes and Villains, Marianne looks at the most striking of her husband's tattoos:
She parted the black curtains of his mane and drew her hands incredulously down the ornamented length of his spine. He wore the figure of a man on the right side, a woman on the left and, tattooed the length of his spine, a tree with a snake curled round and round the trunk. This elaborate design was executed in blue, red, black, and green. (85)
Marianne has no interest in interpreting the tattoo; it is the act of being tattooed that engages her. She asks her husband "'Was it very painful?"' and follows this with "'Why did you let him mutilate you so?"' (86). In Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, however, Ishmael has no interest in the pain that the heavily tattooed Queequeg must have suffered. His interest lies elsewhere:
And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume. (480)
Ishmael is interested only in the meaning of the tattoos, what it is they might signify. Carter's protagonist focuses on the act of tattooing and ignores meaning, while Ishmael focuses on hermeneutics at the expense of the physical act of tattooing. Both, of course, are thoroughly artificial distinctions. Although Marianne has no interest in hermeneutics, this is not the case for the reader, who recognizes the conventionally misogynistic interpretation of the Biblical narrative and integrates this depiction into an overall response to the novel. Generally, however, readers of literary texts endorse Ishmael's perspective: they interpret tattoos, or attempt to, and construct an artificial distinction between the act of being tattooed, which is negated, and the meaning of the tattoo, which is privileged. This polarization is also inevitable when considering prison tattoos, by which I do not mean here only those done in prison. I also mean those professionally done outside prison but which are privileged by the narrative gaze within texts set in prison.
However, I also want to suggest that it is a mistake to speak of prison tattoos as if they were all the same. I want to discriminate quite emphatically here between the tattoos of inmates who are in prison because they were, or still are, addicted to drugs (usually heroin) and the tattoos of those who are in prison because they are criminals--that is, those who commit crimes, but not so that they can satisfy their addictions. Overall, I want to suggest that the tattoos of addict inmates are designed to dramatize their abjection, while the tattoos of criminal inmates are designed to demonstrate their agency. Additionally, I note the assumption that the body is a site upon which the state can codify its property and inscribe its judgments into the skin has been formally, and universally, abandoned. The Nazi death camps, discussed later, are a monstrous exception to this development. A number of scholars, including Jane Caplan, Clare Anderson, Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Ian Stewart, Abby Schrader, and Steven Connor have traced the history and practice of branding or tattooing criminals. Considerable evidence indicates that both the Romans and the Greeks tattooed slaves, deserters, and criminals, and certainly criminals, at least, were routinely, universally, and forcibly tattooed until well into the nineteenth century. However, my interest here is to consider a number of contemporary narratives, primarily North American, which are set in prisons or which depict characters that have spent considerable time in prisons. Specifically, I want to discuss the depiction of voluntary tattooing within modern prisons.
It is clearly, at the very least, an interesting irony that when the State loses the power to tattoo those it judges to be criminals, they then tattoo themselves. In his The Book of Skin, Steven Connor writes: "The abolition of compulsory tattooing of prisoners in the French penal service during the nineteenth century was followed by a huge increase in the activity of voluntary tattooing" (81). Contemporary, voluntary penal tattooing is inseparable from issues of agency, ownership, and abjection. I need to note here that I use the word abjection in two ways: firstly, in the sense used by Julia Kristeva in her Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982). As Juliet Fleming notes: "Tattoo's uncanny power to affront (and so arouse) the liberal subject is a power of horror that largely coincides with the special effect identified by Julia Kristeva under the name of 'abjection"' (63). In this sense, of course, all tattoos, inside prison or outside, on the bodies of criminals or addicts, are capable of producing this special effect. Kristeva's notion of abjection has much to do with self-hatred, a mark, I will argue, of the junkie; however, she is also much preoccupied with borders: "These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There I am at the border of my condition as a living being" (3). Fleming writes of the tattoo: "Lodged on the border between inside and outside, the tattoo occupies the no-place of abjection" (64). The link between abjection and criminality is stressed by Kristeva:
It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior ... Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject. (4)
However, with specific reference to addict inmates, I also use the word in its more conventional sense, "being of the lowest degree, lacking self-respect."
Addict Inmates and Tattooing
In William Burroughs's Junky (1953), Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting (1993), Jerry Stahl's Permanent Midnight (1995), and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (1996), most of the characters have spent time in prison; nearly all are junkies. In these books, tattoos are invariably of the most primitive kind and are depicted as, in addition to whatever specific interpretive significance can be attached to them (usually little), visible markers of the hatred junkies feel for themselves and for their own bodies. The body in these texts is always a source of shame and horror. Tattoos in these novels do not decorate addicts' bodies; rather, they visibly emphasize its pathetic corporeality. The central dynamic of these texts is toward the transcendence of the body by the injection of heroin, a use of the needle which mimics the practice of tattooing and stresses the subservient, inessential nature of the body. It is noticeable that tattoos are always represented as a priori; no character is ever described getting a tattoo, but many characters are depicted injecting heroin. The act of injecting heroin is invariably represented as a violation of the body, which has become a clearly apprehended Other in the mind of the junkie.
Junky opens with the narrator entering an apartment full of drug addicts: "[T]he door was opened by a large, flabby, middle-aged queer, with tattooing on his forearms and even on the backs of his hands" (5). In Will Self's My Idea of Fun, John, a long-term junkie, is described as chopping the air "with his thin, blue-tattooed forearms" (175). In Infinite Jest, set for the most part in a rehabilitation clinic, so many of the resident junkies are tattooed that one character, Tiny Ewell, is driven to construct what he refers to as, a "dermo-taxonomy" of tattooing (175). Tiny's appraisal of the specific genre of "jailhouse tattoo;" interestingly, rejects Falk's suggestion, cited above, that tattooing "does not imply contempt for the body." Instead, Wallace suggests: "Overall searing-regret honors probably go to Jennifer Belbin, who has four uncoverable black teardrops descending from the corner of one eye, from one night of mescaline and adrenalized grief, so that from more than two meters away she always looks like she has flies on her, Randy Lenz points out" (207). Later, he writes: "Ewell's personal feeling is that jailhouse tattoos aren't poignant so much as grotesque, that they seem like they weren't a matter of impulsive decoration or self-presentation so much as simple self-mutilation arising out of simple boredom and general disregard for one's own body and the aesthetics of decoration" (210). It must be stressed, though, that Ewell's frame of reference is limited to addicts. Welsh's Trainspotting depicts another environment full of heroin, prison, and ink; it is one in which the body is first disfigured by tattoos: "He looked seedy and menacing done up in a suit, the wey draftpaks do, indian ink spilling oot from under cuffs and collar onto neck and hands. Ah'm sure Beggar's tattoos move intae the light, resentful at being covered up" (77). Almost immediately, the body is abandoned completely: "A mosaic shell ay scar tissue and indian ink, ah presume there's some cunt inside it, is screaming" (77).
Tattooing is not, clearly, a purely symbolic utterance in such texts; pragmatic issues need to be considered. In Permanent Midnight, Stahl's first visit to a methadone clinic prompts this observation: "Right off, what you noticed about the people waiting were their tattoos and their eyes. The green jailhouse ink and the hard dead stare of the majorly incarcerated" (144). Another dealer has a junkie friend called Felix, who is "a lumbering, jug-eared tattoo victim he knew from the joint" (266). In the fiction of Jean Genet, much of whose work is set in prisons, the symbolic and the pragmatic are intertwined. Genet's male narrators are often transfixed by desire for heavily tattooed criminals, but their colourful flesh merely encases an essential criminality--and it is this essence which Genet's narrators really wish to possess; the heavily inscribed flesh is the only available conduit.
Falk writes of modernity and tattooing that "irreversible body-marking became closely associated with stigmatization" (102). In addict-inmate narratives, the body becomes a surface upon which, socially, and conventionally, the junkie announces his marginalization, but, philosophically, one upon which he utters his contempt for the flesh. The junkie's attitude to his body is effectively Cartesian. Tattooing neatly parallels the junkie's principal non-custodial activity: the injection of heroin, the piercing of the flesh with needles. Conflated, indeed paradoxical, issues emerge here. The junkie, constantly threatened with imprisonment, voluntarily surrenders his freedom immediately upon release from prison, this time to heroin. The needles of the prison tattooist, or, more usually, the prisoner's safety pin and ink, are exchanged for the junkie's own needle; in the former case the body is used as a declarative surface, and in the latter case the body is again used-this time to service the mind. Not only is the addict physically enslaved to heroin, but he is, it can be argued, enslaved to drugs because of an extravagant belief in the mind/body dichotomy. The junkie typically treats his own body as though it were a slave to his consciousness. The injecting user does, of course, actually pierce the flesh; he stabs himself, mutilates himself, violates his own body. A contempt for the body, even a hatred of it, is indeed, I would argue, a pervasive topos of addict-inmate narratives. The mind is the master in junk narratives, where the body is the slave. Tattoos in such narratives are one manifestation of this distaste for the flesh, but their depiction is proleptic in that inscription announces a desire to transcend the flesh, ultimately to abandon it. It is a striking feature of addict-inmate narratives that the tattoos are always so poorly executed, so lacking in finesse or artistry of even the most rudimentary kind that no specific, interpretive significance can be attached to them. They just are! Here, it is the act of being tattooed that is privileged; in criminal-inmate narratives, however, the act of being tattooed and the specific meanings of individual tattoos are both of significance.
While the tattoos inflicted upon the criminal by the State proclaimed judgment, ownership, and the impossibility of rehabilitation, contemporary, imprisoned criminals' tattoos announce agency, group solidarity, self-evaluation, and the pre-eminence of the convict's own body as a commodified object in a world where conventional material possessions are largely absent. Inmate agency is clearly an issue in the relationship that incarcerated criminals have with their tattoos. Douglas Kent Hall writes: "The prison tattoo is also a statement that the convict, though resigned to the reality of prison life, still clings to his right to do what he will with his own body, his own mind. The skill of the tattoo artist, and the finished work of the wearer's body, provide the freedom of creative artistic expression" (7). Later, he writes: "Jerry, a lifer, who has gradually tattooed most of his body, explained it this way: 'Sure, they got rules against tattooing. The man, he's got rules against every fuckin' thing. They'll bust your ass any chance they get. But this is my body. It's my novel, man, my poem, and I'm just gonna keep writin' on it"' (8). Additionally, I suggest that if the addict-inmate's tattoos are Cartesian, in that they dramatize the mind/ body dichotomy, then the criminal-inmate's tattoos are, although secular, Berkleyean, in that they are designed to be perceived. Hall writes: "A convict in California confessed that his tattoos give him the feeling that he is onstage" (11). Criminal-inmate tattoos are, in essence, panoptic, flourishing and multiplying precisely because of the inmates' awareness that they are being constantly surveyed, by the authorities and by each other.
Like Tiny Ewell, I, too, am impelled to construct a taxonomy of the prison tattoo, as it is depicted in contemporary prison narratives. I want to suggest that there are at least six categories to the sub-genre: these are the commodified tattoo, the female tattoo, the Nazi tattoo, the religious tattoo, the memento mori tattoo, and the gang tattoo. However, before discussing meaning at all, the act of tattooing should be considered. It needs to be acknowledged that the solicitous request of Marianne's "Did getting that tattoo done hurt?" is unlikely to be heard very often within prisons. Nevertheless, even in a world where nearly everybody is tattooed, the act of being tattooed, irrespective of meaning, has value, of the kind Pierre Bourdieu would certainly see as symbolic value. In prison, respect is accorded to those inmates who boast the largest, the most colourful tattoos and, especially, to those tattooed on the penis or the face, places which are particularly sensitive areas, where the tattoo is known to cause the most pain; they are places, too, where it is known they will cause the most offence and horror, both to inmates and to straights. When they are well executed, tattoos have value in prison. However, this value is not economic.
In his introduction to Bourdieu's Language and Symbolic Power, John B. Thompson writes, "One of the central ideas of Bourdieu's work [...] is the idea that there are different forms of capital: not only 'economic capital' in the strict sense (i.e. material wealth in the form of money, stocks and shares, property, etc.), but also 'cultural capital' (i.e. knowledge, skills and other cultural acquisitions, as exemplified by educational or technical qualifications), 'symbolic capital' (i.e. accumulated prestige or honour), and so on" (14). In much the same way, Juliet Fleming suggests:
For although we say, with horror, "a tattoo lasts forever"--as if, within our cultural or psychic economy, permanence were a recognized evil--most tattoos last only as long as the body endures, which is to say not as long as ink on paper. It may be that disapprobation of tattoo's permanence has a political, as well as a psychic, dimension. For where classical economic theory recognizes three types of property: the intellectual, the real or immobile (land) and the moveable (chattels), tattoo announces itself as a fourth type: a property that is at once mobile and inalienable. (66-67)
As Foucault has suggested, prison and capitalism are intertwined at the deepest levels:
There is an economico-moral self-evidence of a penalty that metes out punishments in days, months and years and draws up quantitative equivalences between offences and durations. Hence the expression, so frequently heard, so consistent with the functioning of punishments, though contrary to the strict theory of penal law, that one is in prison in order to "pay one's debt." The prison is "natural;" just as the use of time to measure exchanges is "natural" in our society. (233)
But the pain of the tattoo, even its very existence, has no measurable, economic value; the tattoo is a gratuitous gesture, confrontationally, even aggressively, lying outside the economic model upon which the prison is built. Pain is not as quantifiably measurable, as are, for example, years. However, pain and time can actually be linked in what could be perceived as yet another category of prison tattoo: the tattoo which itself is about being in prison: "He is short, compactly put together and there are two teardrops tattooed just under the outer corner of his left eye. Looking at him I think about the legends I have heard: each teardrop stands for a year spent in prison or in some instances, for a person you have killed" (76). The very gratuitousness of the tattoo is a form of freedom. However, while the tattoo has no economic value--it cannot be sold, or bartered--yet still it is perceived as the "property" of the tattooed criminal. This property, significantly, cannot be stolen, even in a world of thieves. In a world of necessary, inescapable suffering, the unnecessary pain of the tattoo is a statement of contempt and defiance, as well as one of solidarity and communality.
The Taxonomy of Criminal-inmate Tattoos
The tattoo as commodified, purchased object has the least interest and significance within the genre of prison narratives. In Eve's Tattoo, Emily Prager writes of the tattoo parlour: "On three walls were Scotch-taped hundreds of illustrations of the tattoos Big Dan offered: skulls with fire flaring from the eye sockets, swastikas festooned with roses, panthers on the attack, hearts with blanks for cherished names, snakes and dragons, mermaids and madwomen" (4). Similarly, in Abraham Verghese's The Tennis Partner, the narrator notes the tattoos he sees on his patients are of two kinds, "store-bought from one of the tattoo shops on Dyer Street, or homemade. The former were fine lined, black and gray, often elaborate or brightly coloured and chosen from one of the patented patterns ('mild to wild' in the catalog)" (62). In Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Dick's tattoos are not evaluated in the same way as are his partner in crime Perry's. Dick's tattoos are seen as lacking in imagination, as is he:
The tattooed face of a cat, blue and grinning, covered his right hand; on one shoulder a blue rose blossomed. More markings ornamented his arms and torso: the head of a dragon with a human skull between its open jaws; bosomy nudes; a gremlin brandishing a pitchfork; the word PEACE accompanied by a cross radiating rays of holy light; and two sentimental concoctions--one a bouquet of flowers dedicated to MOTHER-DAD, the other a heart that celebrated the romance of DICK and CAROL. (25)
Throughout prison narratives it is made clear that such tattoos are evaluated, at best, as neophytic: the tattoos of an apprentice--precisely because they are store-bought and not bespoke they attract little in the way of narrative gaze. However, even then such tattoos are worth more than the self-mutilation masquerading as tattoos on the bodies of addict inmates.
The tattoo category "Women" is not without surprises. Overall, and perhaps parenthetically, it is noticeable that the absence of women is a burden borne very lightly by convicts. Often, in fact, women are not seen as the elusive, absent, and desirable Other of which crime has deprived the convict but, rather, the reason he is there in the first place. The following comment from Kansas in Jimmy Lerner's You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish is exemplary of the attitude to women in prison narratives: "'This bitch back in Kansas musta dropped a fuckin dime on my convict ass--y'unnerstan' what I'm Saying?'This reference to the apparent treachery of a woman triggers a fresh outcry from the convict choir on the Group W bench" (14). Women are usually associated, in one way or another, with the Fall--prison offers an interesting, secularized version of the Edenic myth. Kansas has female tattoos on his body which are, again, exemplary of the genre: "His colossal chest boasted a single massive canvas: the Grim Reaper slashing down with his scythe at a naked prostrate woman. The woman, with long dark hair and breasts the size of mutant cantaloupes, bore a strange resemblance to the bare--breasted motorcycle girl on Kansas's back" (48).
In The Tennis Partner, the narrator writes of a
striking jailhouse image that I had seen on several patients now. It was that of a woman, a chicana, who, like a Hindu goddess, had many forms. The original mold must be housed somewhere in the penal system of West Texas, passed on from one inmate generation to the next. In some versions she was clothed, but most of the time her chest was bare, and her nipples pointed upward in the gravity--defying manner of a young teen. Her pubic hair was a wild, dangerous tangle. (63)
This is how women are usually represented in the prison tattoo: sufficiently powerful to require the male to depict his ability to subjugate them, yet simultaneously powerful enough to remain outside his control: "Her pubic hair was a wild, dangerous tangle." Ironically, these ostensibly women-centred tattoos are aggressively displayed on the bodies of men who are much, much more comfortable in the presence of other men.
In prison, convicts' bodies are often their only actual possessions, and, therefore, these bodies are never uncontested or unproblematic, nor are they even personal. Skin colour in prison is often as much a political statement as it is a personal one, and the implications of this for both white and African-American inmates can be immense. H. Bruce Franklin notes in Prison Writing in 20th-Century America:
By 1994 the incarceration rate for African-American males had soared to seven times that for white males [...] African-Americans were [between 1992 and 1993] imprisoned at a rate (1,947 per 100,000) six times greater than whites (306 per 100,000) and more than twenty times the international rate of imprisonment (96 per 100,000), bringing the number of imprisoned African Americans (626,207) to almost half the total number of prisoners in all thirty--six of these nations [in the survey the author cites] combined (1,338,176). (17)
Similarly, Auli Ek, in Race and Masculinity in Contemporary American Prison Narratives writes: "Statistics also show a racial imbalance in the prison population: at midyear 2001, for example, there were 4,848 sentenced black male inmates per 100,000 black males in the United States" (2). Race, itself inseparable from skin colour, is a crucial aspect of American prison life; indeed, it is the most significant; the nature of an inmate's crime(s) has far less importance in a prison yard than the colour of a convict's skin. It is surprising, then, to read in Katherine Fishburn's book on nineteenth-century American slave narratives: "Just as it had taken time to systematize slavery (from the concept of limited indenture to that of slavery for life) it took time to invent the concept of race" (4). Later she comments that "Race, for all its enduring, material, political and psychological consequences [...] is but an illusion" (44). Not in American prisons it isn't! Ek writes that "Race, however, more than poverty, is the primary facet of otherness in prison narratives" (11). Race in prison is no illusion. He continues, "in addition to bodybuilding, tattoos are commonly used to construct the prisoner body. By marking his body with tattoos, the prisoner defies the institutional marking of the body that unifies prisoners by making wearing prison uniform mandatory, and by doing so also negates the prisoners' individuality" (104).
The most recent, and the most notorious, instance of the compulsory tattooing of prisoners occurred in the Nazi death camps. In essence, these tattoos were not punitive, they were worse--they functioned as measures of codification, reducing individuals to numbers and dramatically proclaiming that these tattooed bodies belonged, literally, to the State, not only in life but also, as a horrified world discovered, in death. Strikingly Nazi iconography and emblems are among the most ubiquitous images found in American prison tattoos. In Prager's Eve's Tattoo, the protagonist has the identity number of a female death camp victim tattooed on her arm, in order, as she tells her lover, "'I'm going to keep Eva alive. She'll go on living, here, with me"' (11). With ironic detachment, Prager's narrator writes of her tattooist: "On his bicep, the full insignia of the elite Totenkopf, or Death's-Head Squadron of the SS, was perfectly inked with its lightning bolts and skull, and then along the forearm, swastikas and iron crosses, ending on top of his hand with ACHTUNG" (6-7). Hall writes: "Racism separates most prison populations. Many biker tattoos reflect ideas spawned by the Aryan brotherhood, the old prison gang started at San Quentin. These include White Power, 100% White, Pure White, A.Y.M.; the dual lightning bolts of the Nazi SS, the swastika, and the word Germany" (10-11).
In Russell Hoban's novel Angelica's Grotto (2000), the protagonist Harold Klein, an elderly art historian, berates several men with swastika tattoos and ends up in hospital as a result. Understandable though Klein's anger is, it is almost certainly misplaced, even in England, and would be even more so in America. The American Nazi prison tattoo is not, I would argue, anti-Semitic; it is largely ignorant of history but still manages to operate on several levels of signification. The Nazi prison tattoo is designed to shock and repel, certainly, but, more importantly, it is a marker of both hatred for African Americans and a concomitant proclamation of white solidarity, and even supremacy. It should be noted that in a prison system such as America's, where a disproportionate number of convicts are black, the act of being tattooed with Nazi iconography requires considerable physical courage, and this is understood by the entire prison population. Lerner writes: "Yard Rats award big points to fish with swastika tattoos" (178). What is remarkable about Eve's tattoo in Prager's novel is that it is an attempt to reclaim precisely the historical specificity of the Nazi death camp tattoos, of which the Nazi prison tattoo is shockingly unaware. In American prison narratives, Nazi tattoos have nothing to do with the Holocaust and everything to do with race, skin colour. In Lerner's You Got Nothing Coming ..., the Jewish narrator's cell mate is Kansas: "A skinheaded giant with a three--inch blue swastika tattooed on his neck" (14). In Jerry Stahl's Permanent Midnight (1995), the narrator notes of his new drug dealer "(sixteen years inside, twelve on methadone): He had more ink than Satan: calves, neck, and arms a near solid catalog of tattooed Aryan brotherhood icons: Swastikas, Iron Crosses, barbed wire, doe-eyed naked beauties astride s.s. lightning bolts" (165). A later drug dealer has a "jail green ARYAN BROTHERHOOD on his neck" and a "faded, flaming swastika tattooed on his forearm" (153). When Lerner suggests to Kansas that during a toilet paper shortage they use some of the pages of the numerous Nazi tracts he has hidden in their cell, Kansas's response is almost comically ignorant: "'No fuckin' way. You're talking about writings that are practically sacred, like them Dead Sea Scrolls they found"' (102).
While Nazi tattoos proclaim a universal contempt for black skin, the gang tattoo announces commitment to a very small and highly specific community. Breyton Breytenbach, a South African writer, is constantly aware of the crucial importance of tattoos to prison gangs: "Normally you only rise through the ranks by committing specified acts of violence: sticking a knife into a warder, for instance, is worth instant promotion to 'colonel' and the insignia will be tattooed on your shoulder" (272). Similarly, he writes, "[Y]ou recognize them [gang members] by the distinctive tattoos around the neck--a miniature gallows, a bow tie, a pair of dice (because they also 'walk with the number, i.e. belong to a number gang) or by the etched star on the shoulder" (273). Leon Bing writes of his meeting with Sanyika Shakur/a.k.a. "Monster Kody;" perhaps the most notorious member of the Los Angeles gang the Crips: "There is a tattoo on the left side of his throat--beautifully scripted dark blue letters with graceful serifs spelling out 'Eight--Tray Gangsters. His brother, Li'l Monster, has the same tattoo on his forearm" (244). As here, the gang tattoo can often be a racial signifier. In his novel One Shot, Lee Childs writes, for example, of a man newly arrived in prison: "The guy he made eye contact with was a Mexican. He had gang tattoos [...] The friends were all stocky little guys, all with the same tattoos" (56). The gang tattoo is, unlike the Nazi tattoo, also highly insular, preoccupied with a particular territory, a tightly defined topography. Essentially, such gang tattoos, unlike Nazi tattoos, have their antecedents in the guild or craft tattoo; they emphasize incorporation and community; perhaps paradoxically, the presence of a gang tattoo is the closest most contemporary African American prison narratives approach to the communal spirit of the slave narrative. Logically enough, given the capitalist model upon which the penal system is based, the bodies of prisoners who are tattooed with Nazi iconography or with gang tattoos are continuously working, proclaiming the attitudes of their owners on such issues as racial hatred and ethnic solidarity.
In their essay "Religious Tattoos and Transportation to Australia;" Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Ian Duffield writing of the middle of the nineteenth century note: "The importance of convict tattoos' adjustability is that, while the state attempted to anatomize convict bodies through the process of description and inscription, many of those bodies were being adapted by enterprising subjects of power. In this, religious tattoos played a striking role" (130). Religious tattoos are also, perhaps surprisingly in the later years of the twentieth century, still pervasive within the prison community. In The Tennis Partner, Verghese writes: "Religious figures abounded: the Virgin of Guadalupe above the buttocks. So that the sodomist's penis would shrivel at the sight of the mother of Jesus. One of my patients--a murderer, in handcuffs, being treated for heart--valve infection--had a giant Christ on a crucifix on his chest" (63). In Permanent Midnight, Jerry Stahl notes of another testee at the methadone clinic: "He laid his head on the desk, crying, so that the tattooed angel on the back of his neck spread her wings for the ceiling" (91). Hall writes:
A younger man, a Hispanic from southern Colorado, offered this story about his full-back Guadalupe: " I was tripping once and I got an idea about the virgin, how she had protected me, kept me alive, stuff like that. I saw her clear, like in a dream. I got psyched and told this guy about it and he started the Guadalupe. I wanted the whole back. And roses." (11)
It is noticeable, though, that the specifically religious tattoos are almost always inscribed on the bodies of Hispanics; such representation, therefore, tends to be offered in the language of Orientalism, of the exotic, the anachronistic.
When evaluating the tattoos of numerous nineteenth-century Australian convicts, Maxwell--Stewart and Duffield observe that many of these tattoos affirm the possibility of bodily transcendence. Conversely, the culture of tattooing among contemporary criminals, at least as depicted in a variety of narratives, suggests that the overwhelming majority of them believe that there is nothing to them but bodies. In the contemporary prison narrative, criminal inmates reject the transcendental consolations of Christianity. In Me Book of Skin, Steven Connor suggests: "Contemporary mortification does not aim to put the body in proleptic memory of its death, but to transfix the body in its presence" (90). What modern, secular America offers in the place of conventional religious tattoos is the memento mori motif. Probably the most ubiquitous tattoo in American prison narratives is the skull, sometimes without but more usually with a bunch of roses. Hall observes that "in prison tattoos, skulls abound" (11). In The Tennis Partner, the narrator says of one of his patients: "On his right bicep he had 'Born to Die' tattooed elegantly in an Old English font; the other arm had skulls and crossbones" (62). Hall also writes: "Flowers, the rose being the most common example, signify beauty, or the unfolding of the soul. The rose itself mirrors divine perfection" (12). Good writers, of course, can use conventions for creative purposes. Capote writes, for example, of Perry's tattoos:
While he had fewer tattoos than his companion, they were more elaborate--not the self-inflicted work of an amateur but epics of the art contrived by Honolulu and Yokahama masters. COOKIE, the name of a nurse who had been friendly to him when he was hospitalized, was tattooed on his right biceps. Blue-furred, orange-eyed, red-fanged, a tiger snarled upon his left biceps; a spitting snake, coiled around a dagger, slithered down his arm; and elsewhere skulls gleamed, a tombstone loomed, a chrysanthemum flourished. (24-25)
Capote chooses to end his ostensibly objective survey of the tattoos here: he doesn't finish on the cat or the tiger or the dagger but on the skull and the tombstone. His neutral description of the tattoos is actually proleptic, anticipating the deaths that give the book its title.
Wallace offers an exemplary image, combining the skull and roses in Infinite Jest:
At the height of his obsession this one synthetic-narc-addicted kid came in who refused to be called by anything but his street name, Skull, and lasted only like four days, but who'd been a walking exhibition of high-regret ink--both arms tattooed with spiderwebs at the elbows, on his fishy--white chest a naked lady with the same kind of overlush measurements Ewell remembered from the pinball machines of his Watertown childhood. On Skull's back a half m. long skeleton in a black robe and cowl playing the violin on a vertical gonfalonish banner unfurling below; on one bicep either an icepick or a mucronate dagger, and down both forearms a kind of St Vitus dance of leather-winged dragons with the words--on both forearms--HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR BLUEYED BOY NOW MR DETH!? The typos of which, Tiny felt, only served to heighten Skull's whole general tatt-gestalt's intended effect, which Tiny presumed was primarily to repel. (ao8)
Although Hall cites an inmate's interpretation of his own skull tattoos unquestioningly, I see no particular reason for assuming his reading of the ubiquity of skull tattoos is correct: "'Death is no big deal; explained a biker with at least a hundred various-sized skulls on one arm. 'Most guys in here are just as good as dead. We eat, we sleep, we shit. But what's that? They already took our life"' (12). For Hall, the skull is always juxtaposed with the rose, but there is no sound logic for separating the skull from the rose and then suggesting that each of them means something different, like some inky chiasmus. The memento mori prison tattoo seems to me more genuinely subversive than the Nazi prison tattoo, for example, because it is essentially an act, not of defiance, which must by definition acknowledge the superior strength of the enemy, but an act of revenge. While the tattooed skull speaks of death, so does the rose. Here, teleology is inscribed into the flesh. One has happened; the other will happen. The beauty of the rose is ephemeral, transitory; it, too, will die. The criminal's tattooed skin reminds him, personally, that his suffering body will find release, in death, not transcendence, while the very same tattooed skin tells his jailers that their authority is provisional, limited, because they, too, must also die.
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KEVIN MCCARRON is Reader in American Literature at Roehampton University, London. He has published numerous articles in scholarly journals and has contributed chapters to nearly fifty books on subjects including tattooing, cyberpunk, popular music, horror fiction, dystopian literature, drug addiction, alcoholism, and blasphemy. He is the author of William Golding (1995; second edition 2006) and The Coincidence of Opposites: William Golding's Later Fiction (1996), and he co--authored Frightening Fictions (tool), a study of adolescent horror narratives.
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2008|
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