You’ve seen them in countless movies, heck you’ve even witnessed Michael Scoefield use them to escape in Prison Break. Prison-made tattoos are a form of communication for inmates, and telling each other about gang affiliations, prison status, family bonds, and spiritual beliefs.
Here are some shots from a collection by Peter Wollheim.
With tattoos dating back to age 13, this inmate was working toward a “full shirt” of tattoos — chest, back and arms fully tattooed. The Harley-Davidson Evolution motorcycle commemorates the beloved, customized bike his ex-wife sold in their divorce.
This 24-year-old inmate got his small teardrop tattoo at age 15 and says it means “somebody’s mother doesn’t have a son anymore.” The dragon and demon emerging from slits rendered in his chest (left and right) are common prison tattoos and generally represent the wearer’s evil nature breaking out and causing harm.
Lightning bolts on one side of this man’s neck and “Thank God I’m White” on the other clearly announce his racist beliefs formed, he says, during his 15 years in California prisons. Other tattoos include the names of his children, opium poppies, the years of his three prison terms, prison walls and bars, him “dreaming about my old lady” and his favorite tattoo — “In Memory of Mac and Annie,” his grandparents. In the California prisons, he used to trade “a cap of weed” for a tattoo, and crooked guards would bring in bottles of ink.
Lightning bolts symbolize “white power” and racist beliefs. The crude cross and chain were applied while this inmate was incarcerated at the old Idaho State Penitentiary (which closed in 1973), and the same image was worn by all members of his prison clique.
This inmate had a reclining figure tattooed on his chest so that “no matter how old or ugly I got, I’d still have a good-looking woman next to me.” The portrait is of one of his five ex-wives. A repeat offender rapist, the man has been in prison since 1976.