Old School Tattoo: Preserving the Criminal Code

I ran across this super-cool article on Foto8 via the Needles and Sins tattoo blog.

Apparently the Department of Forensic Medicine at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland has a collection of tattoos preserved in formaldehyde that were collected at the turn of the 20th century.

The tattoos were collected from deceased prisoners at nearby facilities so that officials could try and decipher the “pattern language” (codes) of the Polish prison culture.

From the article:

“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.

Conditions in prisons allowed only for primitive tools and dangerous chemicals to be used in tattooing. Paper clips, pins, wires, razor blades and pieces of glass were used to puncture the skin and powdered coal, charcoal, burned rubber, cork, pencil refills, ink, watercolours and crayons were used as colour pigments, often mixed with water, urine, soap, cream or fat.

In the 1970s, the CSI Department of Militia Headquarters in Warsaw published a special document only for prosecution agencies in which they analysed 2300 tattoos, including those from the collection at Jagiellonian University. For over four years, the researchers looked at prisoners, soldiers and criminals who served sentences in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Germany and the USSR. A catalogue that precisely described the meanings behind certain tattoos was created.”

I’m honestly just fascinated by the tattoos themselves. Some of them are so crude it’s hard to even compare to modern “art” tattoos. There’s also something so much more sinister about these tattoos, whether that comes from their crude simplicity, depictions of sex acts, or the fact that many of the preserved patches of skin still have human hair on them, they’re evocative in a way that I don’t find most modern tattoos.

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~ by K. Ritcheson on July 28, 2010.

One Response to “Old School Tattoo: Preserving the Criminal Code”

  1. wow, amazing! Its crazy that the hairs from the skin are also preserved!

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