Cracking the code of prison tattoos: an archive of human flesh in Poland


37 Responses to “Cracking the code of prison tattoos: an archive of human flesh in Poland”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Wow, these may not be high tattoo art, but they are a huge step up from the gang/prison tattoos that I see associated with our local Latin Kings and Gangster Disciples. Maybe some prisoners now are getting better tattoos, but I get to see a fair number of police identification photos, and I’m not seeing anything with this kind of sense of art around here.

  2. millrick says:

    jeez, wish i wasn’t so dyslexic
    imagine confusing “more than 100 years old” with 1915
    so sorry

  3. davidasposted says:

    Traditionally, they could be found on people who exhibited a tendency towards perverse behaviour: such as burglars, thieves, rapists and pimps. It was noticed that a significant percentage of tattooed people showed signs of personality disorders and aggressive behaviour.

    That was Cesare Lombroso’s argument, which we now know was wrong.

  4. bardfinn says:

    The meaning of the first tattoo in the original article is clearly “But, WHY IS THE RUM GONE???”

  5. Billegible says:

    I was kind of disappointed with the link, really wanted to hear about this code, but it was just a sildeshow… that said, “I think it’s cute how the flayed skin of Polish prisoners reminds you of your ex-girlfriend” still has me giggling.

  6. userw014 says:

    This collection of preserved human flesh is HORRIBLE – and publishing it on the web is worse.

    I was about to flame and rant about how photography and drawings could capture the “scientific” evidence sought by the investigators in penology – but if this material was collected by policies establish by pre-Solidarity Poland, then I can almost understand how it happened under the strange and inhuman ethics that infested the entire western world then.

    Still – publishing this without some commentary about how the State determined that it was right and proper to “harvest” this material – and whether or not any improvement in penology resulted – makes this “essay” just an exercise on creepy voyuerism.

    • bardfinn says:

      Merely because you got nothing from the article does not mean others cannot or did not.

      I think it’s creepy for one reason – the blurb from the article seems to take care to distinguish between removing the tattoos from corpses and removing them from (by contrast implied as living) prisoners.

  7. slump says:

    Some of the nudes appear to be copied from postcards and photos. If so, it’d be cool to see them matched up.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “… and from DEAD people on whom autopsies were performed.”

    Yeah, last time I checked they still weren’t allowed to perform autopsies on live people.

    • Ultan says:

      “Yeah, last time I checked they still weren’t allowed to perform autopsies on live people.”

      Well, that is what you would call a self-correcting problem there.

    • dbarak says:

      Except in Nazi Germany of course, but they had their papers in order.

  9. CastanhasDoPara says:

    This disturbs me not. However, I was hoping for more of an in-depth analysis of prison tats from turn of the century Poland. No offense here but this article is lame, crippled even. Not at all what I was expecting, especially since when I saw the headline and clicked the link I was thinking “oh, interesting I was just thinking about this topic today. How’s about the universe just shitting me some serendipitous info on the subject.” No such luck. Thanks anyway.

  10. frankieboy says:

    I bet the guards just thought it was bad-ass to collect tattoos by cutting them off prisoners bodies, and the whole “we’re collecting them to learn about prisoners’ predilections and codes” is a bullshit cover story. Hard to believe, but some guards are evil.

  11. nanuq says:

    I’m amazed that nobody mentioned the Yakuza and their elaborate tattoo system for marking rank. Prison tattoos may not have really indicated personality traits but they definitely indicated the career criminals who had a long criminal history. Not so much the rapists and sex offenders who knew better than to call attention to themselves in jail.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Fascinating! I remember reading a story years ago about a son and father in Australia where the father had a rather unusual last wish. The father had four or five tattoos he was very proud of, and was dying of a terminal disease. He wanted the tattooed flesh removed, tanned, and framed by the son after passing. The son ran into some problems with finding out whether or not this was legal, and also finding someone that would do this if legal.
    If I recall, it was determined legal, and the son became the owner of his deceased father’s tattoos, and displayed them in his living room.
    I thought it was rather touching, and a unique way to remember his dad.

    I told my brother who has numerous tattoos, and some of them are very nice works of art. He wants me to see if I will do the same for him should I outlive him. If it’s legal in the states, and I can find someone to do this, I will honor his wish. You can buy various human bones legally here, so I imagine tanned and cured human skin can be owned as well so long as the person in question has requested this as their final wish. Heck, if you can keep someone’s cremated remains in an urn on the fireplace mantle or wherever, why not this?

  13. Anonymous says:

    Jesus, they couldn’t just take pictures??

  14. gwailo_joe says:

    Wow. . .I’m pretty hard to gross out, but my first reaction to this was ‘Ew, really???’. . .

    But, yup, commit a crime and die in jail and the state can take your body and do whatever it wants with it. No surprises there.

    I’m glad these tats have special meanings, because frankly, as prison tattoos go. . .compared with some of the work of the Mexican Mafia, even the Aryan Nation. . .these are artistically pretty weak.

    Of course. . .who’s better than the Japanese? But maybe that’s a prison vs. gangster argument. . .(In Japan perhaps the more tats you get will keep you OUT of jail ; )

    • Xeni Jardin says:

      Bear in mind that they are more than 100 years old.

      • Pantograph says:

        Are you seriously suggesting that people couldn’t draw for toffee around 1900?

      • millrick says:

        more than 100 years old?
        i didn’t get that impression at all

        “…60 objects preserved in formaldehyde, a method devised by one of the experts employed by the Department at the turn of 20th century.”
        “In the 1960s in Poland, getting a prison tattoo required special skills and criminal ambition”

        plus the clothing depicted doesn’t, to my untrained eye anyway, look a century old.

        • Xeni Jardin says:

          Turn of the 20th century = around 1900-1910. One hundred years ago. Also, use your eagle-eyes to read the dates in the tattoos themselves. Like the one shown here with “1915″ in the middle of the tat.

        • Xeni Jardin says:

          Also, jeez, look at the hair and the accessories and stuff on the chicks. Totally early 20th century. Ergo, 100+ years old.

  15. loonquawl says:

    “In Poland, tattoos are common among criminals. Traditionally, they could be found on people who exhibited a tendency towards perverse behaviour: such as burglars, thieves, rapists and pimps.” – I wonder whether something got lost in the translation, but i guess it’s just some quaint prejudicing going on.

  16. cjp says:

    Jeez – maybe a bit of a warning before stretched human flesh photos. Old or not, it’s still creepifying.

  17. dagfooyo says:

    Obviously these are all cleverly encrypted clues smuggled in to allow the prisoner to break his wrongly-accused brother out of jail.

  18. Anonymous says:

    That San Antonio prison tattooed ‘flesh’ looks like pig skin, which is pretty common for apprentice tattooers to practice on. Plus, the line work looks too clean/dark for a single-needle, electric toothbrush powered ‘machine’ you’d have in prison. I call shenanigans.

  19. jphilby says:

    “burglars, thieves, rapists and pimps.”

    They left out: carnies.

  20. taghag says:

    @dagfooyo #5 LOL, i want those hours spent watching that series back! :)

    if anyone is interested in the meaning behind prison tattoo code, i can recommend these books about russian criminal tattoos:

    i have the second volume and it reveals the complex code behind the tattoos. the books contain mainly drawings (collected by a russian prison guard) and a few quite remarkable photos. the notes accompanying the drawings are non-glamorous and overwhelmingly sad to read.

    • alisong76 says:

      it’s a work of fiction, but the movie Eastern Promises features the Russian gang tattoos very prominently. It’s a brilliant flick, too, but not for the faint-hearted.

  21. Sekino says:

    There’s something almost quaint about really badly drawn porn. Maybe because it looks so naive, it loses the adult/offensive edge (I guess if there are no decent artists in prison at the time, you have to settle for crappy anatomy…).

    I had a good time trying to figure out the ‘meaning’ behind the images, though; especially the first one:

    “Okay, there’s this guy on a tropical, desert island, and this giant eagle brings him naked chicks… Yeah, can you draw that?”

  22. Anonymous says:

    There’s a guy in San Antonio who has a sideshow that includes prison tattoo art on human flesh:

    Here’s the entire post:

    Pretty odd!

  23. seyo says:

    wow these are totally boss, I want that tat of the naked chick with the dumbbells. I really love this old timey aesthetic. The bike rider too. Shit I’m a tattoo virgin, other than my initials on my hand which I did myself with India ink and a sewing needle, but I just might have to get these done the next time I’m very drunk and near a tattoo parlour.

  24. dbarak says:

    I wonder how many of these were made into wallets or lampshades over the years.

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