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

In FOTO8, a photo gallery and essay by Katarzyna Mirczak about the tattoo collection at the Department of Forensic Medicine at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland: 60 tattooed chunks of human flesh preserved in formaldehyde, all collected from prisoners at a nearby state penitentiary and from dead people on whom autopsies were performed.

The majority of the prison tattoos represent connections between the convicts. Besides gestures and mimics it is a kind of secret code – revealing why 'informative' tattoos appeared on uncovered body parts: face, neck or arms. The collection was created with a view to deciphering the code – among prisoners known as a 'pattern language'. By looking closely at the prisoners' tattoos, their traits, temper, past, place of residence or the criminal group in which they were involved could be determined.

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. It was noticed that a significant percentage of tattooed people showed signs of personality disorders and aggressive behaviour. In the 1960s in Poland, getting a prison tattoo required special skills and criminal ambition – it was a kind of ennoblement, each tattoo in the criminal world was meaningful.

Preserving the Criminal Code

[FOTO8 via Brock Meeks, images courtesy Katarzyna Mirczak and Eric Franck Fine Art ]