In Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony,” an explorer stumbles upon a horrific machine on a remote island. Its purpose: to tattoo sentences over prisoners’ bodies for twelve hours, resulting in the bleeding out and eventual death of the condemned. The fictional machine was conceived as a way for criminals to truly atone for their crimes by reaching nirvana through the pain of punishment.


The quincunx is a common symbol in prison tattoos, representing a prisoner confined within the four walls of his cell.

Beyond Kafka, prisoners and tattoos have a strong connection. The combination of unlimited time and ensuing boredom contribute to the prevalence of prison tattoos, in spite of tattoo needles and ink being labeled as contraband. Prison tattoos are seldom superficial, they typically contain hidden messages. Like the condemned men in Kafka’s Penal Colony, inmates will tattoo symbols on themselves that represent the crimes they committed. These symbols (a teardrop on the cheek, for example, being particularly common) serve as warnings to other inmates—best not piss off the guy with the retinal tattoo. Similarly, tattoos representing gang affiliations are common, especially to California prisons—the Aryan brotherhood, Mexican Mafia and Black Guerilla Family each have a series of hieroglyphics to represent gang membership or solidarity.


“Misanthrope” tattoo on former inmate Les, 24 years-old.

The penal system and tattoos share a connection on a metaphorical level as well. Something as stigmatizing as a prison sentence has the enduring immutability of a tattoo. The formerly incarcerated frequently find job opportunities, housing, and general integration back into society difficult, if not impossible, with prison sentences indelibly etched on their records. This connection is perhaps no more clearly illustrated than when an inmate gets a dramatic tattoo in prison that cannot be concealed. Then, the stigma of incarceration is not limited to when employers run background checks, it follows him everywhere. The tattoo marks him to his detriment; connoting gang affiliation, a rap sheet, or just looking really fucking intimidating. Prison tattoos may be a form of protection behind bars, but beyond the penitentiary, they only serve to mark a person as a former criminal.


Former gang members at Homeboy Industries (pictured with Homeboy founder Greg Boyle) provide tattoo removal services in South Central, L.A.

A new, “slow journalism” project called Narratively just put out a story about a doctor in Brooklyn who removes tattoos for the formerly incarcerated at no cost. Dr. Ores’ services allow former inmates to laser-off tattoos that hinder them from leading normal lives post-incarceration. Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles provides a similar service for former prisoners in Southern California. Dr. Ores and Homeboy Industries allow the formerly incarcerated a chance to distance themselves from their past prison lives, to truly leave the penal colony behind and begin anew.

Read more about Dr. Ores here, and Homeboy Industries here.

Pictured above: a photograph by Melissa Golden of Mario Lundes, 32, who works at Homeboy Industries.


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