Arts & Culture
Longtime jailhouse tattoo artist explains the business of incarcerated skin
Published: August 3, 2011
How many tattoos have you done over the years?
I’ve probably done two or three thousand tattoos in prisons; from single letters to full back pieces and whole sleeves. I’ve done plenty of tattoos on guards, too.
What do you use for ink?
People melt checkers, chess pieces, Bible pages, toothpaste, ink pen caps. But that ain’t good, because the polyfiber in them gives you bumps. I use Johnson’s Baby Oil. It’s petroleum-based. You burn it into soot and that becomes the ink.
What are the penalties for getting caught with a tattoo gun?
Depends on the place. Some take 90 days good time from you and lock you in a cell block for 180 days.
Who were your best customers in prison?
I tattooed everybody: Mexicans, Chinese, white, black, all kinds of people. I did them all.
What kind of tattoos would they gravitate toward?
Depends on the race. Black guys want gangster stuff: names, faces, gang affiliations, pictures of dead homies. Stuff that represents where they’re from. Mexicans like religious imagery, lowrider and vato stuff: girls, cars, Virgin Marys, Jesus. White dudes go for anything: dragons, knives, guns, swastikas. All kinds of weird stuff like that. Depends on the white guy you’re talking to.
What’s the meaning behind teardrops?
Depends on the state you’re in. Some people wear them to count time under their left eye. Under the right, it signifies a dead homeboy. For some it’s the number of people they’ve killed. In Louisiana, it doesn’t mean as much — they just wear teardrops to be having them. In Texas, a lot of tattoos are gang related.
You’re a smart and well-spoken guy. How did you get started in the criminal life?
I got married at 17. Had a son at 18. Went to work for a petrochemical company making $27 an hour in 1981. Bought a new double-wide, a pickup, put my wife in a Trans-Am. I had a bass boat, a four-wheeler, a catfish pond, four acres of land, a dog, a cat, and a horse. Even a horse trailer. But every day I did the same thing: get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, and listen to the wife gripe. It got old. I got tired of it. Felt like I was missing something. You can have everything and it’s still not enough.
So I started riding with a motorcycle club in Texas. Got into the methamphetamine trade in the ’80s. Transporting from El Paso to Beaumont. But I didn’t get into real trouble till I started doing it. Drugs and girls. I lost my head. Went downhill from there. Sold to an undercover narc and got a slew of dope charges. Bang. Straight to prison.
Did the outlaw lifestyle suit you at the time?
I ain’t going to lie; I loved it, but it ain’t an easy life. I’m having a hell of a time getting a job now because of it. When I apply for a job, they see me. That’s strike one. Next is the background check, then it’s over. People can tell these are prison tattoos — no color in them. They automatically deem that I’m a bad person. That makes it hard.
What’s the moral to the story?
Don’t do the crime unless you can do the time ... because you have to live with the consequences. You can be rebellious without going to prison. My advice to young guys: just do right and stay away from it. I’m here to tell you it ain’t where you want to be. I lived it over 20 years. Now I’m back out here, trying to find a job. There ain’t nothing fun about prison. It’s not glamorous. When the lights go out, you’re there by yourself. Ain’t nobody can help you but you. And it ain’t going to get no better. And it can always get worse ... at any moment. •
Dege Legg, aka Brother Dege, is a writer and musician living in Lafayette. His name is pronounced “deej leg.” His website is degelegg.com.