I got my first tattoo at 15, a Grim Reaper profile with the scythe arcing over its head. My father died right after that, before the skin had even healed. I’m not superstitious, it’s just the kind of thing you remember. The black India ink is gray now compared to when it was first picked in freehand with a straight needle; the Reaper looks softer.
The next tattoo came after six of us formed a small biker gang: Lost Souls. We had a knack for wrong turns and misguided shortcuts, and often got turned around on some back country road where there always seemed to be a longhorn bull skull. All of us got the same ink: the “1%” symbol inside the diamond outline, above a longhorn skull, above a four-point compass with an “S” at each point.
Those once-separate elements have melted together over the decades, but each of them had meaning and still do. The other five Lost Souls have gone on, their tattoos with them. Mine is the only one still above ground.
After I went to prison, tattoo culture was part of daily life. I got the standard spiderweb on the elbow because someone died by that arm. I had one that spelled out “DOC DEATH” in vertical letters down my shoulder blade, until someone cowardly stuck a shank in it and turned it into “DOC D~”.
A cable wire would be held over a candle flame and pulled from the ends—two fresh needles, sharp and sterilized.
My ink-slinging cellie said the “EATH” looked like a bird’s leg, and I liked his artistic vision. Beneath the hum of a tattoo gun assembled from cassette player parts, the bird’s leg became an eagle’s claw, holding a crystal ball with a black rose inside. It took many years for Cellie’s hepatitis C to cover his liver with scar tissue until it hardened into a rock, but eventually he too went on ahead to party with Pops and my brothers.
One of the best ways to reduce blood-borne disease transmission was, and still is, not sharing ink. Batches were made with a few drops of state-issued hand soap mixed with soot that had collected inside half of a cola can. The can, set above a mop-string wick, was fed through the lid of a mineral oil bottle, much as olive oil had fed lamps for millennia.
Once the ink was at the desired consistency, a toothpaste cap’s worth was poured into a separate container for personal use, rather than being drawn from a communal pot. For needles, a cable wire would be held over a candle flame and pulled from the ends as the center glowed red. It first stretched, then separated: two fresh needles, sharp and sterilized.
The “FUCK YOU” tat has been handy when dealing with the rookie corrections officers who want to make a name for themselves.
One night I had a bit of ink left over in my toothpaste cap, and asked Outlaw Webb to tattoo “UNBROKEN” inside my lower lip. Surprisingly painless, but in the morning the letters had disappeared. We ran it again that night, but deeper. The next morning, it had vanished again. Maybe I was broken after all, we laughed.
So that night he tattooed “FUCK YOU” to whatever entity was interfering, which has remained legible for nearly three decades now. It’s come in handy when dealing with the rookie corrections officers who come in wanting to make a name for themselves. They’d ask if anyone has anything smart they want to say, and I’d just silently roll my lip and let them know where I stand without having to talk to them at all. These days, they quit soon enough anyway.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Between 2020 and 2022, understaffing within Georgia Department of Corrections prisons has allowed for at least 90 homicides and at least 99 suicides. Tattoos and death have always felt in close proximity, but never has death felt so close as it has since these past three years. Unlike the Reaper on my bicep, the passage of time brings the specter of death here into a sharper focus.
Photograph via Georgia Department of Corrections