The art of tattoos behind bars

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This summer, the Netflix comedy-drama series Orange is the New Black was definitely a must-watch for Miami teens. Most viewers can recall details of how convicts would purchase items at the commissary (a store inside the prison) and use them to create other things, such as inmate Piper Chapman’s “dust mask” made of a menstrual pad and two hair ties.

Although it is a scripted show, inmates in real prisons actually do get pretty creative when it comes to making their own items. Within their four walls, inmates have managed to create a working tattoo gun and ink. In an article from Business Insider, a man serving time who goes by the pseudonym Leon Kingsley talks about the process of constructing a tattoo gun and making the ink, all out of an officer’s view.

To start off, an inmate will have to get their hands on a motor, which can usually be found inside a CD player purchased at the commissary. The motor will then be tied to an empty pen barrel.

For the needle of the gun, the inmate will have to obtain a spring of some sort, normally from a stapler, and then stretch the metal out to a nearly straight line using fire. Once that is done, the makeshift needle then gets attached to the motor, allowing it to spin at a very fast speed. The artist will then hold a piece of sandpaper up to the revolving needle which will sharpen the point of it.

On the subject of the presence of germs and bacteria on the makeshift equipment, Kinglsey said, “[They] put fire on it, and anything that’s on it, is going to die anyway.” Kingsley also shared that the inmates seldom get infections in their new tattoos.

To make the ink, an inmate needs a metal container. The inmate will put baby oil inside the container, and then place a thin piece of metal across the top of the can in a way that still allows ventilation.

The artist will then light a fire inside the can. To get a spark, they might put a paper clip along the prongs of a TV plug-in connected to a socket in the wall. They will place tissue paper against the spark and now have a fire. Once the fire is lit inside the can, soot will start to collect on the underside of the piece of metal on top of the can. The artist will then scrape the soot off the top and repeat the process. He’ll place the soot in an empty container and add a drop of water to it. This mixture is their tattoo ink.

The tattoo gun runs on a battery pack purchased at the commissary, making the gun portable. This way, the artist can “tat away” in the privacy of wherever he may choose.

In the outside world, a sleeve of tattoos may cost you nearly $1,000, but in prison you can get it as cheap as $100. These transactions are all done over prisoners’ credit cards.