Documentary 'Bless This Mess' Uncovers the History of Indonesia's Prison Tattoos
"The way I see it, the tattoos that people consider ugly are ones I find very, very good because nobody talks about them."
All photos by Ares Margautomo.
Ibenk's tools were simple. A toothbrush, heated in the middle and bent, a pen, and a bit of dynamo tape was all he needed to make a jailhouse tattoo gun. The ink? Norit (diarrhea medication) and blackened cooking oil mixed with ink from a ballpoint pen.
"To kill time in prison, I would secretly make tattoos for fellow inmates with this very simple tool," Ibenk said. "It's handmade."
Ibenk is the guide to Indonesia's hidden world of jailhouse tattoos in director Panca Dwinandhika Zen's new documentary Bless This Mess. The documentary began with Panca's work with the NGO Rumah Cemara—which advocates for drug addicts and those with HIV/AIDS in prison. He was working in a prison in Bandung, West Java, when he began to make friends with some of the inmates. The prisoners he met were artistic, articulate men who were bored and eager to find a way to express themselves.
Panca took some of their artwork and held an art exhibition called "Bless This Block" that featured the work of the inmates of the Lapas Banceuy Prison. The inmates also showed off their ink, and explained the reasons, and risks, behind prison tattoos. Their stories, and tattoos, fascinated the 31-year-old documentary filmmaker.
"Mexico, the United States, and Russia have better—and more complete—archives on prison tattoos," Panca said. "Meanwhile, Indonesia has so little as far as archives. It hasn't exactly begun to happen. That's why I took the initiative."
Prison tattoos serve a different purpose in Indonesia, Panca said. Abroad, in places like the U.S., Mexico, and Russia, jailhouse tattoos often broadcast gang affiliations. In Indonesia, it's often little more than a way to kill the boredom.
"Regardless how 'gangster' you are, inside prison we're all the same," Panca said. "Nobody asks 'which gang are you with'."
Common themes include eagles, dragons, roses, and naked women. The dragons and eagles, Panca said, had their roots in stickers imported from the U.S. "Back in the 80s, there were many dragon and eagle stickers that felt so American," he explained. "People adapted those stickers into tattoos." But Panca's favorite tattoos are the spirals and batik motifs that people tend to dismiss as ugly.
"The way I see it, the tattoos that people consider ugly are ones I find very, very good because nobody talks about them," he said.
It can be dangerous to get a new tattoo in jail. It's technically against the rules, and anyone caught with fresh ink, or a tattoo gun, can face harsh punishments.
"If someone gets caught with a new tattoo, he'll be in trouble," Ibenk said. "If an inmate gets caught with a tattoo machine, he'll get locked inside a small cell and beaten."
But there was a time when having a tattoo could get you killed. In the 80s and 90s, Indonesian security forces would execute criminals, preman, and gabungan anak liar (wild kids) in a wave of deaths called "Penembakan Misterius" ("mysterious shootings") or Petrus for short. Thousands of suspected criminals were killed and left splayed out in the streets as a crime deterrent. One of the signs that you might be a criminal? Having a tattoo.
Within weeks, Indonesians with tattoos were heating irons and pressing the red-hot metal to their skin to "erase" the tattoos. It left the country with a deep mistrust of people with tattoos—a stigma that is only starting to vanish today.
Mang Han was nearly a victim of Petrus. He was pulled from his home in Tamansari, Bandung, in the 80s because he was tattooed. Mang believes that he was saved because of a friendship with a military colonial. But he was still badly beaten and thrown in a cell with dozens of other inmates.
"I come from the streets, but when Petrus started to happen, I hadn't been active for 1.5 years," he recalled. "But all the sudden they raided my house. I was taken away without any reason or explanation."
Mang's body is a living history of Indonesia's tattoo scene. Many are left unfinished, a common problem when supplies are cheap and DIY machines break in jail. The colors have faded with time. Others start in one shade, and finish in another because the ingredients that made up the homemade ink switched. He said that he started to get tattooed after his first time in jail.
"When I got in, there were already inmates with tattoos," Mang said. "Back in the day, some inmates made their own tattoos while some others watched and imitated the process."
Mang gave up on crime and now works as an activist promoting the preservation of the Cibodas and Citarum rivers. The tattoos, he said, are just dark reminders of his past.
But the stigma surrounding tattoos is slowly changing, said Panca.
"There's less and less stigma," he said. "We can see many directors and doctors with tattoos. When two strangers have tattoos, it's so easy to start a conversation. One can simply asks, 'where did you get that? Who's the artist? What does that mean?' Tattoos are a conversation piece. People tend to think 'Hey, we both have tattoos' and instantly feel some kind of solidarity."