Sunday, April 25, 2010

BUS STORY # 181 (Serious Tattoos)

I'm free, originally uploaded by tinamathis.

He’s in the far left seat in the last row at the back of the bus. Maybe late 30s or early 40s. Short, no nonsense hair, intense eyes, hard face. He’s wearing a blue bandanna, a black T-shirt with tattoos running from both wrists to underneath the sleeves, long blue jeans shorts, and athletic shoes.

The tattoos look like prison tattoos. But I’m told you can’t always be sure these days because a lot of parlors are specializing in prison-style tattoos. It seems they’re in demand among those who haven’t been inside yet.

This guy looks like his tats might be the real deal.

At the other end of the row is a guy in a baseball cap with the kind of yellow and orange flame pattern you’d see on a hot rod or a low rider. He’s got a ragged goatee and mustache and a few days growth on his cheeks. He’s also got a backpack on the seat next to him.

That leaves two seats open in the back row.

A couple makes its way to the back. They’re young, with smooth round faces, black plastic frame glasses, and goofy smiles. They’re also huge, and they’re the same size. She’s wearing a pink T-shirt. He’s wearing a black T-shirt. They look like two giant balloons bouncing softly down the aisle.

The girl sits down in the middle seat of the back row. She spills over into the seats on either side of her. The boy stands for a minute as if he’s not sure whether he should try asking the guy with the cap to move his backpack, or if he should try and squeeze in next to the guy with the tattoos.

“C’mon,” she smiles at him and nods her head to the empty seat.

He’s still grinning, but not moving.

The guy with the tattoos looks at him, then barks, “She your girlfriend or your sister?”

I’m somewhere between aghast and laughing out loud. He’s right. They could even be twins.

“Girlfriend,” he answers, smiling.

“What’re you standing out there for?”

He grins, shrugs.

“Well, sit down next to her.”

He does what he's told. It’s a tight fit for everybody. The couple locks arms, then they look at each other and smile. They are moonpie gone with luv.

Tattoo guy shouts out to another rider.

“Hey, can I use your phone when you’re done?”

The photo at the top of this story is titled “I'm free” and is posted with the kind permission of tinamathis. You can see this and all tinamathis’ photos on Flickr at:


Blogger Busboy said...

A few hours after posting this story, I got an email from a friend asking “What are prison tattoos anyway? Do they have a parlor in prison to offer elaborate designs?”

I went to Google and typed in “prison tattoos.” I had no idea what a wealth of material is out there – blog posts, data bases, books and reviews, You Tube news interviews . . . . After about 45 minutes of reading and viewing, I was embarrassingly aware of my status as ignorant tourist.

What are prison tattoos? Besides being tattoos you get in prison (more on this later), prison tattoos are used as advertisements – who you are, why you’re in, where you’re from and who you’re aligned with. I saw lots of photos, but only a few that featured women (and those were cruder in both style and content than the tattoos on the arm of the man in the photo).

Tattoos are also hardly confined to the arms. They are everywhere. In fact, if the photos are truly representative (a legitimate consideration, I think), then most prison tattooing is being done across chests and backs. And some of the more symbolic tattoos are being done on the hands and fingers.

Quality varies depending on the artist, the method used, and the material available. A lot of it is crude. Some of it is terribly elaborate. All of it, apparently, is monotone: a blue that eventually turns black or blue-black.

Everyone agrees there is a complex symbology in prison tattoos, but the meanings of various symbols can vary from entry to entry. There are also local variations based on inside associations (what prison you’re in, or what gang) and outside associations (what gang or neighborhood you’re from).

I saw several references to tattoos not being allowed in prison. The reason: shoddy equipment and sterilization practices promote the spread of hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. But it is also clear that tattoos are prohibited in the same way using a cell phone while driving is prohibited.

What I’ve read has made me question whether, in fact, my co-rider had “prison tattoos” or not. I simply don’t remember his tattoos other than some of them featured women like the ones featured in the photo at the top of this story, and that they went up both arms.

My hunch is the photo’s tattoos are not prison tattoos. But – and I really mean this – what do I know?

6:17 AM  
Blogger Busboy said...

But Wait! There’s More!

Yes, I’ve spent more time in Google reading about prison tattoos. I can’t vouch for the reliability of what I’m reading, and I’d probably be a lot better off with a guide. Still, much of what I read sounds credible, and much of it is remarkably consistent across multiple sources. But like I said in my first comment, what do I know?

One of the themes that intrigued me was that anyone can get a gang or prison tattoo, and some who have neither done time nor are gang members do just that.

One writer says this is pretty much a variation on “the clothes make the man.” He cites the way gangsta clothes, slang and hand signals have been adopted by white, middle-class high schoolers utterly disconnected from the cultural context that generated the style. It’s a way to look cool, or tough. Or like someone different from yourself.

Since gang and prison tattoos identify who and what you are to yourself and others, their use outside these subcultures turns them into either accessories or fake IDs.

I have the impression I could find a local tattoo parlor with an artist who would outfit me with the traditional tattoos sported by, say, a member of the Mexican Mafia. I am thinking the artist might tell me I don’t really want to do that, and might suggest instead a nice, discreet, multi-colored Zia for my left deltoid.

Why might he tell me that? Because he’s a nice enough guy to tell I don’t know black tar from Shinola, and because people like me getting tattoos used by members of the Mexican Mafia is where the trouble starts.

It’s bad enough being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the right tattoos. But apparently there have been cases of people entering a prison system with tattoos that signal they’re something they’re not. The punishments are said to be swift and severe. Think having your phony insignia ripped off your uniform – according to one source, anyway.

Since the Google sources are dealing with prison tattoos, none of them covers what happens out on the street when gang members run across someone with their tattoos who isn’t in the gang. But we can probably make a pretty good guess.

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Trish said...

Ran across this blog while reading online and love these stories -- very interesting and love your idea of riding the bus and writing about it. Bookmarked!

8:25 AM  
Blogger maddie said...

Hahaha, buses can be treasure troves of good stories. :]
My first bus ride in years was... interesting. A woman was singing out loud, staring at passengers who were boarding intently, and waiting for someone to sit next to her. Nobody did because her music was loud, and she was singing and dancing in her seat.
When it came to her stop, she stormed out of the seat, swore at everyone, and spat on the floor before leaving.

You sure meet some strange people!

12:36 PM  
Anonymous Kudla Trekkers said...



4:41 PM  
Blogger Busboy said...

@ Trish and Kudla Trekkers: thank you.

@ maddie: I’ve certainly seem some strange things on the bus. I have a co-worker who bets his strange people at town hall and city council meetings are stranger than my strange people on the bus. I suspect each one of us is strange to somebody. But I recognize your story as a bona fide bus story!

9:04 PM  
Blogger refugee from reason said...

A fine story. Personally, I don't understand tattoos. First, I'm not a fan of needles and I would imagine there's some pain involved in getting one; Second, they've got to look rather pale and dreadful as one ages; and Third, being Jewish, Liviticus precludes me from "gashing" my skin.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Busboy said...

I don’t understand tattoos, either – in more ways than one, as it turns out. I’ve heard and read that, yes, getting one is painful.

I don’t know how they age. I’ve seen some old Navy guys’ tattoos and they look like blue-black blobs on their forearms. But the tattoos on the guy in the photo above look to be in good shape. I take them for work done when he was a young man, but who knows?

You’ve introduced me to another way I don’t understand tattoos – Leviticus 19:28, to be specific. Back to Google I went. I found several rabbis addressing the question, but whether conservative or reform, they all agree tattoos are prohibited. (The analyses of text, history, and commentary were the most interesting part of my reading.)

One thing: apparently the prohibition against gashing one’s skin does not apply to circumcision.

7:25 PM  
Blogger refugee from reason said...

Circumcision was essentially an issue of cleanliness.

8:30 PM  
Blogger Mother's Day said...

Great stuff here! Keep it coming!

6:01 AM  
Blogger Busboy said...

Thank you, Mother's Day.

5:26 PM  

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