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Prison Ink

Prison Ink

When tattoos were first recognized they came with a  negative connotation. Tattoos were mainly seen on criminals, biker gangs, or sailors.  Today, tattoos are found on people of all backgrounds and social class. Ironically, tattoos are still used in many prisons as ways to brand “prison gang members”.  Behind prison gates, tattoos have different meanings than they do in society with tattoo ink that is created using everyday products ( tattoo artists or gang members cannot have a needle and ink).   Prisoners are very limited to resources due to the fact that everyday items can be used as weapons. There are three easy steps on how inmates still get their ink on! There are many disclaimers to using prison made ink; It fades faster, is not permanent, and there is a high chance of infection due to the unsanitary conditions.

Step 1: Gather Your Materials:

When in prison items are scarce to come by, as some inmates turn everyday items into weapons.  The CO’s (correction officers) have to monitor what comes in and out of the prison for the protection of inmates and other officers.  To make the ink one will need: a metal container that can hold 8oz of baby oil, baby oil, cotton balls, and matches. This is all necessary to create the tattoo ink; when burning the oil with a cotton ball, you are creating a black soot powder (which is the main ingredient for your ink).   Once you have all of your supplies it is important to create a “soot collector” because this is what the ink is made out of.

Step 2: Making the Powder:

Once you have all of your supplies you’re ready to make your tattoo powder!  First, you will need to fill the metal container with baby oil. Next, you will take a cotton ball and wet part of it with the baby oil, leaving one area of the cotton ball dry.  Finally, you start your fire. To get a fire you light the dry part of the cotton ball and then drop it into the metal container. This process takes place multiple times because the smoke that is produced creates the soot that will make the tattoo ink.   Do not let the soot be exposed to any moisture. It must remain covered in the soot collector till you are ready to make your ink, otherwise, it will harden and be unusable.

Step 3: Mixing the Ink:

You are finally ready to make your tattoo ink!  You will need a small container (many inmates use clean toothpaste caps for this) to put the soot into.  Next, you will add a minuscule amount of water; if you add too much water you can ruin the soot. You want the consistency to be as close to “pen ink” as possible.  If you need it to be a thinner consistency, add water, but if you need the ink to be thicker then add baby oil.

Today, we look at tattoo ink as an object that is easy to obtain, however, when incarcerated, it is much harder to come by proper tattoo equipment.

At Stories of the Ink, WE DO NOT RECOMMEND CREATING YOUR OWN INK.  As it is not safe and can lead to infections. We DO advise that you go to the tattoo shop of your choice where you will be assured that the process is done in a clean and safe environment. It is best to leave the art of tattooing to the tattoo artists!

If you have any questions about prison ink, DM, or email us at

Tattoos are a fascinating topic.

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Yours, Zoe

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