A tattoo machine

Artefact of the month - July 2021

Natural-born offenders are particularly characterised by reduced sensitivity, especially to pain, which is manifested in the way such criminals tattoo themselves, frivolousness, cruelty, laziness, superstition, special criminal language, etc.”

In 1935, the Suomen Poliisilehti journal discussed the theory of the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) on the characteristics of criminals and their tendency to get tattoos. According to Lombroso, criminals had characteristics considered primitive, such as violence, laziness and the tendency to tattoo their skin. Lombroso’s views were later found to be groundless, but tattoos remained part of the culture of criminals and prisoners. The tattoo culture of a closed and hierarchical prison community opens the door to the history of tattooing and prison administration.

Tattoos have been part of the history of mankind for thousands of years around the world. Tattoos have had many different culture-specific meanings, and people’s attitudes towards symbols tattooed on their skins have varied over time. Over the millennia, tattoos have been made with a variety of sharp tools used to puncture the skin surface to get the desired pattern. People have pricked their skin using sewing needles, knife tips and nails as well as bone spikes and wooden sticks dipped in dye.

The earliest known connection between criminals and tattoos is the marking of offenders. This custom possibly spread from Persia to ancient Greece and Rome. The purpose of tattooing was to stigmatise groups of people outside the community. In ancient Greek, stigma or stigmata meant snake bite marks or man-made tattoos. Tattooing of marks that cause disgrace and separateness continued widely after the antiquity, as criminals were still being tattooed in different parts of Europe in the 19th century.

Tattoos were especially associated with criminals, soldiers and sailors, although they decorated the bodies of other people as well. For some time, tattooing was a fashion trend among the upper classes of big cities such as London and New York at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Tattoos remained on the margins for a long time, but from the 1960s onward, the tattoo culture became more and more visible in Western countries, and images tattooed on the skin became more common as part of the individual style.

Despite tattoos having now become part of the mainstream, the prison tattoo culture is still alive. The possession of tattoo equipment is prohibited in Finnish prisons. Sharp tools are forbidden due to health risks and the occupational safety of personnel. Tattoo equipment found to be held by prisoners will be confiscated, and acting in conflict with the rules and regulations is punishable. Prison tattoos have hardly been studied in Finland, and their exact number is not known.

Getting tattoos in prison takes inventiveness and a little effort. Tattoo equipment used in prisons includes brush spikes, rivets and paper clips, which allow the skin to be cut or pricked to make patterns. Electrically operated tattoo machines have been made of materials at hand: for example, small motors, various metal and plastic parts and the handles of ballpoint pens and toothbrushes are suitable for this purpose. Motors used in tattoo machines have been taken from silent devices such as DVD players or game controllers. Attempts are often made to cover the buzzing of the machines with the sound of the radio or television. Tattoo colours are also made in prison by inventive means: from the sole of a shoe or a tire by heating, from soot and from ink used in pens. Tattoo equipment is also smuggled inside the prison walls.

The object of the month, the tattoo machine, was confiscated in the men’s section of the Helsinki Central Prison (Sörkka) in 1980 or 1990 (the penultimate number in the year recorded in the transfer data of the object is unclear). The machine is powered by a battery from which power passes through black electrical cables to the motor of the machine, which moves the needle back and forth. The handle is formed from a metal rod with a grip at the end, that is, the part of the machine that the tattoo artist holds on to. The grip is attached to the machine with masking tape. At the end of the grip is a plastic propelling pencil tip with a thin needle inserted.

Prisoners may get tattoos from someone they know for free or for the price of a packet of coffee, but particularly skilled tattoo artists may have higher prices than tattoo shops. Since tattoos in prison are made with self-made devices, the finished tattoo is often blurry. To someone familiar with tattoos, the low-quality images indicate that the patterns were created in prison. In prison, tattoos are made secretly and quickly, directly on the skin, rarely using a model drawing or a transfer picture.

In prisons, there have been no standard tattoo shop catalogues from which the person to be tattooed could choose the desired image. However, prison tattoo culture has developed a repetitive and recognisable catalogue on prisoners’ skins, including religious, erotic and death-related themes. In prisons, tattoos have been made on different parts of the body, and the location may have had a more precise meaning or message depending on the theme. For example, a cigar-smoking skull tattooed on the chest has been suggested to symbolise the career of a thief and a tear tattooed in the corner of the eye to symbolise manslaughter.

However, prison tattoos have no unambiguous meanings. They can be symbols of a life lived, in which case the images reflect the prisoner’s past and identity. Memorial tattoos are a tribute to lost loved ones or a reminder of loved ones waiting at home. Prison tattoos have also been used to communicate crimes committed, criminal lifestyles, prison sentences and belonging to criminal groups. In addition, people in prison sometimes get tattoos spontaneously as skin decoration or to pass the time. Tattoos often have similar meanings inside and outside the prison walls.

The tattoo machine is part of the collection of the Prison Museum, which was transferred from the Criminal Sanctions Agency to the Finnish Heritage Agency and the National Museum of Finland in 2019. The collection is on display in Hämeenlinna’s former county prison building, i.e. the Prison of the National Museum of Finland. The tattoo machine is being exhibited at the new exhibition on tattoos in the Prison in the summer of 2021.

Anni Minkkinen & Helena Schulman


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The tattoo machine self-made in prison was confiscated in the Helsinki Central Prison. Photo: Ilari Järvinen, Finnish Heritage Agency.