The following has been transcribed (with minimal edits for clarity and format) from hand-written letters by our correspondent “Leather,” who is currently serving a sentence in the Orleans Justice Center—a.k.a. Orleans Parish Prison, or OPP—for charges related to a family dispute, subsequent warrants, and the labyrinthian carceral state in general.
THE ART OF A JAILHOUSE TATTOO
Today I’ll be writin’ about somethin’ I’m kinda an expert on: that’s the jailhouse tattoo. Doesn’t sound interesting but it’s really different from a tattoo at a shop in the world, “the world” is what’s referred to as any place outside of jail. There are a few ways it’s done, I’ll explain one of my favorite ways. First making the ink, yep I’m going to explain how to make ink. And I can’t help but wonder how in the hell this even came about. I mean how did an inmate figure this shit out? OK here we go.
The first thing you’ll need is a few chess pieces. I use black but you can use white ones as well. Next you’re gonna need fire, I’ll explain that one later. Next you’re gonna need a cone. I make mine out of (4) pieces of paper, toothpaste state issue (use the toothpaste to stick paper together for your cone). Stick all paper together and make a circular tube. Now you wanta poke a hole in each side. Place chess pieces on concrete or piece of foil. Now set chess pieces on fire, place cone over them (must be perfectly centered), give a few [minutes] to catch real good. Don’t worry about it going out, the holes will make sure fire ventilated. Let burn for maybe 30 minutes. You can always add more pieces depending on how much ink you wanta make and how dark.
Now you wanna place a piece of cardboard on top, let the pieces burn. You’ll smell the fumes and see particles flying around, that’s how you know it’s a good burn. Now, inside the cone you’ll see it getting really black causing soot to stick to the paper. Now while that’s burning you can start making your needle. Yes you’ll have to make your needle using a staple filed down on the concrete. Also most jails sell emery boards which are perfect for making a fine tip on your needle. I like to make a nice firm handle for my needle, usually an old ink pen case. Insert my staple that has been fashioned as a needle, my ink cone should be ready. I let it burn all the way out.
Now for my next step, carefully take my cone apart. Should have (4) pieces of paper full of soot. Now take a play card and scrape the black soot off the paper. Be careful it’s really lite looks like ashes. Put it in something you can close or wrap up in paper until ready to use. Now let’s make some ink. You’ll need shampoo, toothpaste, soot, and a toothpaste cap. Put a small amount of soot, maybe ½ cap depending on the size of the tattoo, add a drop or two of shampoo, stir it up well, add just a little toothpaste, stir until you get the right consistency.
Now for me the best way to test the ink to make sure it’s not watery, is take one drop of the ink you’ve mixed into the toilet. If it’s not right it will disappear real fast, but if it stays together and drops to the bottom looking like black sperm, that’s the shit that’s the straight drop. Now you’re really ready to start your jailhouse tattoo with homemade ink.
It’s funny no one has died from this concoction or lost a limb from this toxic sounding recipe. I have a few and I haven’t died. Now the last step is transferring your tattoo onto your skin—here’s a few examples.
All the youngstas get tattoos for their wards, streets, girls’ names which are the dumbest, because at 19-24 years old by the time their tat heals next thing you know she leaves them and they want it covered up. There’s a lot of money to be made—to put a guy’s girlfriend’s name you can get 5-6 bucks in commissary, in jail you can make 15-20 dollars a day. That’s good money in jail and passes a lot of time and there are some guys who are really good, who shade and draw some really fancy letters such as:
But if you’re caught doing this it’s considered a major charge, might get re-booked, 30 days in the hole, good time taken. But in OPSO they really don’t care what you do, but in other jails I’ve been to really take tattooing serious. So I guess this concludes my brief article on the art of the jailhouse tattoo.