Biker, Chicano and Prison Tattoos
Since the 1960s the bikers were designated as the group most associated with tattoos – at some point they even surpassed the sailors on the pedestal, though the sailors originally were the ones that helped spread tattooing in the West. The style and content of biker tattoos have been radically different from traditional tattoos: their tattoos were almost exclusively black and they were made with thin lines, in a one-pin style, which usually has been associated with Chicano and prison tattooing.
Chicano tattooing began in the Pachuco gang culture of the 40s – and 50s in California, Texas , New Mexico and Arizona. These tattoos were originally made by hand with a sewing needle dipped in India ink. Classical Chicano themes are Christ, the Virgin Mary and women.
«The terms Chicano or Chicana (also spelled Xicano or Xicana) denote Mexicans who grew up in the United States. However, these terms have a wide range of meanings in various parts of the world. The term became widely used during the Chicano Movement, mainly among Mexican Americans, especially during the movement’s peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although “Chicano” was often used to denote anyone with a Mexican American background, it was mainly applicable to the Tejano community.» (Online source 3)
Without a doubt the most classic Chicano subject is a little Pachuco cross tattooed on the hand between the index finger and the thumb. Once upon a time it was used to identify gang members and to show solidarity to the gang, while for outsiders the Pachuco represented crime and violence. For the inner circle however, Chicano tattoos represents loyalty to the community, to the family, women and God (one of the countless gods invented by humans).
Clown face/mask tattoos are common among gang members. They can have the following meanings:
“Laugh now, cry later”
“Play now, pay later”
“My happy life, my sad life”
“Smile now, cry later”
This style of tattoo is typical among Latin and Asian gang members. (Source 4)
Bikers. Many bikers acquired their first tattoos – who were either handmade by pricking or they were made using rotary one needle pin machines (You can read more about the Stencil-Pens, later adapted to become a tattoo machine, in my previous post The History of Tattoo Part 2: The Americanization (Westernisation) of Tattoo). The biker tattoos (and Chicano) were often (but not always) done while people were serving prison sentences and after finishing the sentence, they brought the prison style with them to the outside of the walls (it’s not like they had a choice and could leave the tattoos behind…).
Typical biker tattoo imagery is very different from the traditional working class subjects: it is not patriotic, have not been affected by military designs, and are often clearly antisocial. Among the most classic biker motifs, you’ll find imagery like Harley Davidson Motorcycles and emblems, V-Twin engines, club logos, marijuana leaves, skulls, symbols and texts like; FTW (Fuck The World), born to lose, live to ride, ride to live, and “property of (bikers name) on female bikers.
On both male and female bikers, the tattoos are usually located on exposed parts of the body, since they are not a private form of expression as much as they are public comments. Biker tattoos also includes a highly literal system of communication within the biker community, and for those who recognize the imagery and mottoes, it also extends outside the groups.
Prison Tattoos. In Europe, one can date the tradition back at least three centuries, but in the U.S. it is more uncertain. In the U.S., we see a strong correlation between Chicano tattoos and to a certain extent prison tattoos. The methods used are the same, with hand-made tattoos (or the “modern-day” of rotating machines made by cassette players, or parts of shaving machines combined with parts of a ballpoint pen and headphone cords). The prison tattoos are made only with black ink.
Just as with the Biker and Chicano tattoos, Prison tattoos mark some sort of belonging to the outskirts of the accepted general direction of society.
In Russian prisons, “…the pain does deter even the most macho convict from covering his body, all at once, with meaningful pictures. Tattoos are created by instilling pigment in the skin with thousands of needle pricks. In the camps, the process can take anywhere from a few hours to a few years, depending on the artist and his ambition, says Mr. Bronnikov. Because of prison conditions, tattoo artists have to improvise with materials and equipment. For instance, they will draw a picture on a wooden plank, place needles along the lines of the design, cover the needles with ink and stamp the whole tableau on the prisoner’s body. Another method is to slice the image onto the skin with a razor and daub the cut with indelible ink. Usually, prisoners manage to get an electric shaver and a syringe with a needle, which they jury-rig into a tattooing machine. Ink is hard to come by, so to make dye, artists will often burn the heel of a shoe, and mix the ash with the prisoner’s own urine — a practice convicts believe lessens the chance of infection.”[Source 5]
1. Bodies of Inscription, Margo DeMello, Duke University Press, Durham&London 2000
2. Skin Shows – The Art of Tattoo, Chris Wroblewski, Virgin Books
7. Photo by Ron Scubadiver. http://ronscubadiver.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/lone-star-rally-galveston-texas/
- The History of Tattoo – Part 1: Polynesia and New Zealand
- The History of Tattoo – Part 2: The Americanization (Westernisation) of Tattoo
- The History of Tattoo – Part 3: The Indians
- The History of Tattoo – Part 4: Biker, Chicano and Prison Tattoos
- The History of Tattoo – Part 5: Japan
- Photos of Tattoos Wanted