Inmate tattoo photographs have papered the prison barbershop at the Old Idaho Pentitentiary for more than a generation. In this gallery adapted from Idaho Issues Online (Spring 2005), historian Christine Brady and photographer Peter Wollheim decipher the underworld of prison tattoo art.

Prison-made tattoos are a form of communication for inmates who live in a situation that bans most other means of self-expression. These messages, which are easily “read” by other inmates, tell a lot about the wearer, including gang membership, status in prison, family relationships, special life events, spiritual beliefs and personal values.

Reciprocal influences exist between prison and professional tattooing. For many years, prison tattoos emulated the techniques of professional tattoo artists. While the professional shops had access to tattoo machines as early as the 1890s, prison tattoo artists relied on a similar hand-held method that used a bundle of sewing needles affixed to a handle. Using this crude set-up, a strong line could be worked that was very similar to that created by the electric machine, which also used several needles.

Tattoos made in this style have a heavy outline with little or no interior shading.

In the 1970s, prison tattoo artists began to use a single needle (often affixed to simple electric motor); this method spawned a distinct style of tattooing labeled “fineline” for the characteristic subtle details of shading that result in an almost photo-realistic product. This new look was noted by “outside” professional tattoo artists, who adopted and popularized the all-black fineline style in the mid- to late-1970s. It remains an important prison and mainstream tattoo style today.

The photos in this exhibit are are from a collection shot by Peter Wollheim in 1993. The subjects represent a broad range of ages (the oldest inmate in the study was first locked up in 1938) and locations, including federal and state prisons across Idaho and in many other states.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs.

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    very nicely written and some nice pix too.. well done for sure