Prisoners Describe What It's Like to Get a Tattoo Behind Bars
"If I could, I would cut all my tattoos out with a blade."
This article originally appeared on VICE Romania
Tattoos are a fairly common sight, and, despite what your parent's want you to think, they generally lead to few regrets. A YouGov poll found that only 14 percent of people who get tattoos later regret them. But getting inked in a fancy parlour is slightly different than having your cellmate permanently inscribe an image on your body using nothing more than a pen spring, some home-made ink and a toothbrush battery.
To find out what getting a tattoo in jail is really like, I travelled to several prisons across Romania to speak to inmates about the process, its importance as a coping mechanism and whether they regret getting them done. I learned about the dangers of infection, the bartering system used to pay for the work and how methods have changed over the past few decades.
Marius, 35, Jilava Prison
After we shake hands, Marius takes off his shirt and runs a finger across the three names inked on his chest. The first is his nephew's, Claudiu, followed by his daughter's, Larisa, and finally his late brother's, Ady. He tells me he wanted their names "close to my heart. I got them at a time when I was really struggling to cope with life behind bars," he says. He has others on his arm, eight of them altogether – each telling the story of a specific relationship.
Marius, who got his first tattoo when he was 12, has been in and out of several institutions, and seen two distinct trends in prison tattooing. The first one dates back to the 90s. "We'd make the ink out of the heels of the warden's boots," he explains. He did this while locked up in a juvenile detention centre, where he worked as a shoeshiner. "We'd scrape bits off the shoes with a blade – nothing too visible to avoid getting caught. We burned the pieces under some glass, then dissolved it in piss, which turned it into a type of ink. We would then dip a sewing needle, with thread we got from towels, into our ink. The tattoos were drawn by tearing the skin." This method was incredibly risky, and inmates were constantly getting infections. "After a while, your skin couldn't take it anymore," he says. "But I kept doing it because everybody else was."
The second method, which is being used today in most prisons, is slightly more advanced. Inmates create an improvised tattooing machine by using the motor of an electric toothbrush and the coiled spring from inside a pen.
In 2010, while in prison, Marius got the name "Elena" tattooed on his shoulder. She was a girl he started dating by phone, even though he was married. To prove their love for each other, they got tattoos of each other's names at the same time.
During that time, his wife had been stripped of her visitation rights for six months, because she'd been caught trying to smuggle in a phone charger for him. When she eventually discovered his new artwork, she was livid, so Marius decided to cover it up with the work "Blondie" – his pet name for her.
Mădălina, 28, The Ploiești - Târgșorul Nou Women's Prison
Mădălina has a single tattoo, which she got on her leg at 24. She would've gotten it sooner, but she found out she was pregnant the day she wanted to get inked, so she had to postpone it. Mădălina picked it after browsing several catalogues. "For me, the flower the butterflies represent how delicate life can be."
Corneliu, 62, Ploiești Prison
Corneliu got his first tattoo – a boxing glove – when he was 14 years old. He was a passionate boxer, and hoped to make it professionally. One of his older brothers, he says, kept pressuring him to get it done, so one day at home, Corneliu grabbed two needles and some ink, and etched the image into his own skin.
"I did it to prove I was brave, which is the same reason many prisoners get tattoos in jail," he tells me. "After I did it, it became a big issue in my family. My parents were very angry."
When he realised he wasn't going to make it as a boxer, he stopped fighting and became a woodcutter. Inspired by his new profession, he decided to get a tattoo of a giant fir, because that would be one tree "that nobody could chop down." In 1992, while in jail, he covered up the tree by turning it into a crown. "It's easy to get a tattoo behind bars," he says. "All you need is a needle, ink, and some courage." Today, he regrets all of them. "If I could, I'd cut them all out with a blade."
Vaile, 60, Ploiești Prison
Vaile doesn't understand people who get tattoos that are hidden in private places. "Either show it, or don't bother," he insists. He got inked for the first time in 1978, after he was conscripted into the army. He got his girlfriend Marianna's name inscribed on his chest, because "if you wear the name of a loved one on your skin, then they're always close by."
Vaile and Marianna eventually broke up. His next girlfriend wasn't exactly thrilled when she found out he had another girl's name permanently etched on his arm. "I had to lie and tell her that Marianna was dead," he confesses.
Like Corneliu, he wants to remove his tats. "If you get in trouble, the police can identify you by your ink," he says. "They don't need to use any fancy forensics, just the images on your body. If they get you, there's no way you can deny it."
Cristian, 30, Ploiești Prison
When I ask Cristian how many tattoos he has, and what they mean to him, he sighs. He has so many he doesn't know which story to start with. He eventually tells me that he got his first tattoo "on the outside", but most of them were inked in jail. "It's a lifestyle for me, something I enjoy," he adds.
His favourite tattoo is a portrait of the grandmother who raised him. The giant image was created using the battery from a CD player, the handle of a spoon, a needle and some ink.
Iulian, 28, Ploiești Prison
For Iulian, his tattoos are both a lifestyle and a list of the people he's loved. He got his first, the very first time he was imprisoned. "I was just a kid and wanted to seem tougher than I was, so I could survive this environment." He's collected several since then, all done behind bars.
When Iulian gets out, he wants to have them all redone, to make them look better and stand out more. He likes black tattoos, but you can't get "too artsy" in prison when all you have is a small motor and needle. "All you can do is be careful," he says. Iulian has never been infected because he always assembles his own inking machines and never uses other people's needles.
Sofica, 21, The Ploiești - Târgșorul Nou Women's Prison
Sofica sports a total of 12 tattoos – most of them names of her loved ones. She got the first when she turned 15, but the majority of the rest were done in prison. She regrets her tats, and is considering removing them once she gets out. She says the women in her community don't usually have that many, though her mother also has a few tattoos.
George, 34, Jilava Prison
George has several tattoos, but none of them were done in prison. He knows that most of his fellow inmates get inked behind bars, but he finds the practice neither hygienic nor artistic. In 2010, he got a tattoo of Maori symbols on his right arm, to cover up a failed tat. He also sports a rugby player on his right arm to remind him of his playing days.
In 2013, he got a tattoo of his newborn son, along with the child's date and time of birth. He followed this up by getting an image of a pigeon hovering over portraits of his wife, mother, grandmother and father. "It represents the peace and calm I want for all of them," he explains.
Bogdan, 32, Jilava Prison
Bogdan got inked for the first time by an older friend back when he was 9 years old. He did it with a machine they'd improvised out of a pen. "I was kind of alone, my mum had died, my dad was in jail, I didn't know what I was doing," Bogdan tells me. He then got more: the face of his wife, the names of his daughters and an image of God.
None of his tattoos were done in prison, but his tattoo artist was a former prisoner who learned the trade inside. He says he'd get them all removed if he could, because "they remind me of the past."