Arts & Culture
Longtime jailhouse tattoo artist explains the business of incarcerated skin
Published: August 3, 2011
From its origins as decorative body modification in various ancient cultures, tattooing has gone mainstream in America during the last generation. Its detail-oriented evolution as art exemplified by modern tattoo artists like Guy Aitchison, Nikko Hurtado, Paul Booth, and others is equally matched by the gaudy overdrive of popular culture and its take on the form, manifest in prepackaged apostasy, and the theatrical bravado of prefab tats, tramp stamps, and tribal tattoos. But no tattoos carry the weight, respect, menace, and symbolic power as those of ex-convicts tattooed in prison. These ain’t your everyday mini-mall, Hot Topic tattoos. This is the real shit. Prison tattoos. Tribal war cries, gangland affiliations, shibboleths, insignias, teardrop kill counts, hard-time tallies, and various forms of outlaw iconography engraved like caution codes into the skin. Leave your skinny jeans at the gate, Ponyboy. This is where the ride gets rough.
Born in Delhi, La. in 1964, Victor “Versus” Sandifer is a prison tattoo artist. He has spent 21 years doing time in both Texas and Louisiana, much of it giving and receiving tattoos. His arms and torso are a calligraphic maze of ink and ivy, baring the literal scars and stripes of a man who has seen many an episode in the hourglass cages of the penitentiary. On parole since May, Sandifer is seeking employment while residing in a men’s shelter and going about the process of getting his life together. Betraying many a stereotype, he is articulate, sharp-witted, polite, and friendly.
Where have you done time?
Hunt, Dixon, Angola, Wade, Cottonport, Camp Beauregard, Tallulah, Calcasieu, Lafourche, Terrebonne ... and I think that about covers it. And a bunch in Texas. I been in almost every prison in Texas and Louisiana. That’s over a 21-year career.
What was the worst prison?
Darrington, Texas. Dangerous. Full of gangs, all carrying weapons. I had to carry a weapon every day. Saw at least one person a week get killed. Seen a couple hang themselves — they couldn’t take it. Scary place when you’re 19.
How did you get into the trade of tattooing in prison?
If you don’t have money or family helping you out, you have to find some kind of hustle. Some legal. Some not so legal. You have to make the decision: How much trouble can I afford to get into? I got into tattooing in 1983 through a Mexican guy at Darrington who was short (near release) and fixing to go home. He taught me the trade.
How do you make a prison tattoo gun?
There are two types. For shade work, you use a Walkman tape player. The motor is slower and turns less rpms. For line work, you use the tracking motor on a portable CD player — it turns at a higher rpm. I always make a pair. You take the motor out. Mount it to a modified ink pen cap with Saran Wrap and then mount that to the barrel of an ink pen cut to length. Break the ballpoint off the pen. Run your needle through it. It slides right in. Once you get that mounted, you pull the spring out of the pen and stretch it out over a candle till it goes straight and pops in the middle. When it breaks, it’s going to leave a perfect point on both sides — that’s going to be your needle.