Freelining with Mike Freeman: Prison art.

What can a tattoo -- or a lot of tattoos across the body -- say about an individual's personality, and willingness to conform to society's rules? (Photo by Steve Schwartz).

Can your taste in art declare something definitive about your personality?
Good question.
Staring at the intricate, highly detailed, eye-grabbing artwork, I smiled, and admitted to myself that I was quite impressed.
“So how do you like being a tattoo artist?” I asked.
My young friend, tall and masculine but at the same time quiet and soft spoken, merely shrugged.
“It has its good and bad points,” he said modestly.
“What are the bad points?” I asked, wondering if he was going to say something about the heavy licensing that tattoo artists are required to undergo in Florida, a surprising amount of regulation for a state that likes to pride itself on having less government than its northern neighbors.
My friend smirked. “Having to do fat chicks,” he grinned. They’re too eager, he added, to get designs around their crotch. He grimaced, then shrugged again, as if to say, Hey, it’s a living.
Having seen the impressive array of tattoos all over his arms and chest, I had asked him a few moments earlier if he was in the military. He said no.
“It’s funny,” I said. “Guys in the military tend to have a lot of tattoos like that.”
That’s when he informed me that he was a tattoo artist, and did it professionally on a freelance basis, working where ever he could land assignments. That’s how I got around to asking him what he liked about the business.
Still, I was surprised at how many tattoos he had covering his upper body — on his fingers, running up his arms, climbing along his neck. Noticing my interest, he briefly removed his shirt to show me that his shoulders and chest were also intricately covered in detailed artwork — like a human graffiti wall. I was impressed that this fresh-faced guy had transformed himself into a walking tattoo board.
“Usually the only guys I know who have a lot of tattoos like that,” I said, “are either in the military or in prison.”
And then, for a brief second, it happened: an embarrassed, uncomfortable look flashed over his face, like someone had walked in on him while he was in the shower. In a rather somber, subdued voice, said, “I’ve spent some time in prison.”
The native of North Carolina told me he’d been in Florida for about five years, and had been sentenced to 24 months in prison not long after moving to the Sunshine State. The charge was manslaughter, for what he said was a drug deal gone bad. He’d used a gun, he said.
“So you shot someone in self-defense?” I asked.
He nodded, but didn’t elaborate.
He told me about the prison he got sent to near Daytona Beach. It wasn’t that bad, he said, insinuating that he’d been tough enough to handle it. His voice, though, didn’t sound tough; it was more like a young guy who had aged very quickly, and learned the hard way that lapses in judgment have severe consequences. He also admitted to having spent time in “the hole” — “for getting into fights,” he said.
That was a reference to the prison’s Special Housing Unit, more commonly known as the Hole. It’s the tiniest room that allows you to do little more than extend your arms straight up, or straight across — and that’s about it. You have two bunk beds, a toilet, and a basin. You and another inmate remain locked up in there, 24 hours a day. Your food is served on a tray through a slot in the door. He shrugged, as if to say he’d survived that, too.
At least now, he said, he was a free man, living with his girlfriend and their child. His brother, he pointed out, was much worse off, now serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison for murder.
“He’s in Pensacola,” he said. “He got 360 years in prison. That’s life. He gets one phone call a month and a visitation every three months.”
“Do you go up to see him?” I asked. “That’s a long way to go.”
He nodded. “We stay overnight,” he said. “I visit him every three months.”
He walked back to his car, and drove off, and that was all I learned — surprisingly far more than I had ever expected anyone to tell me, since we had just met … but at the same time just enough information to make me want to ask so much more: How did all this happen? What occurred in your childhood to lead you and your brother down this path? What were your parents like? Are they around today?
I had the feeling he would have told me everything if I had asked. Maybe I just have a sympathetic face, and folks feel comfortable talking to me about these dark chapters in their lives. I don’t know.
But I also thought about how gentle, and soft spoken, he initially seemed to be — almost shy and reserved for someone who had spent two years in prison. And I wondered, well after he had left, if he opted to express his toughness in those tattoos, rather than in his voice or calm mannerisms.
It also set me thinking about how pervasive “prison art” really is, and what it says about the inmates, either the ones still behind bars or those who are back in society seeking reintegration.
On the web site Tattoos-and-Art.com, there’s an entire page devoted to prison tattoos, artwork and designs — a kind of cottage industry for the incarcerated — or maybe for prisoner wannabes, if such folks exist.
“Although generally speaking, prison tattoos are meant for those who have already been incarcerated, a lot of people like to use these pieces to express a certain toughness they see in themselves,” the site notes. “Prison tattoos are also rife with symbolism; this too may indicate why someone would get this style of body art. However, it is important to remember that many prison tattoos have very negative connotations, and it is essential to remain mindful of these if you prefer not to be associated with them.”
Another web site, www.cellblockvision.com, is entirely devoted to prison art in America. The site points out that “jail art” is “a loose term referring to art that is recognizably born in the penitentiary,” and there is a “prison arts culture, the art most admired, in demand, and commercially successful within the walls.” Tattoos as prison commerce — what a bizarre thought.

The inmate's body becomes a canvas for tattoos. (Photo taken from the web site http://convictedartist.com/prison_tattoos.html).

It’s particularly ironic since tattooing is prohibited in prison, and punishable by lock-up and loss of privileges.
Why ban prison art? As the site notes, “Certain tattoos foment friction, like a Nazi sign or a KKK; they drive some people crazy and incite them to riot.”
It can also be a health hazard, since unsterilized needles in prison can spread HIV, Hepatitis C and other diseases.

I have a good friend who, at age 24, is incarcerated in a Florida prison. He, too, has a tattoo on his arm, although it was done before he got sentenced. I’ve visited him many times, and what’s always surprised me is how many of the other inmates at his prison have tattoos as well — almost all of them. My friend also told me about inmates who have gotten caught getting a tattoo there, and been sent to the Hole for it. Prison staff truly take this issue seriously.
That’s the reason I couldn’t resist asking this Orlando tattoo artist how he came to have so many tattoos when the folks I know with a lot of them tend to be either in the Armed Services — or behind bars. Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me that of the two options, he’d been in prison.
The web site www.Prisontattoos.com, points out there’s a very symbolic nature to tattoos worn by inmates, that it becomes a clear act of defiance against the norm.
“Tattoos have always been big in prisons across the world because they represent a form of rebellion,” the site notes. “Tattoos are a way of broadcasting to the prison administration that, ‘Hey, you might be able to control where you house my body, but you can’t dictate what the hell I put on it.’ ”
Tattoos as a form of thumbing your nose at authority figures — and classifying yourself as someone who won’t obey the rules. And I wondered how many of this local tattoo artist’s own body art is symbolic of what he endured in prison. If we ever meet up again, I might ask him.
In the meantime, as someone who has never been arrested, or spent a night in jail, I make note of the fact that I have never gotten a tattoo or piercing — the body as bland vanilla canvas, or blank slate. A sign of unimaginative conformity, perhaps? It’s never been my conscious goal to send that message, but who knows how we respond subconsciously to these matters.
All I know is that this tattoo artist never struck me for one second as someone capable of a violent act with a gun that would have landed him in prison, at least not by his calm, relaxed demeanor.
His body art, though, had I studied it just a little more closely, probably would have told me a very different story.

Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

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