Illegal tattoo art by inmates leaves its mark on Fremantle’s history

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It was illegal and dangerous. But the tattooing of inmates at Fremantle prison by other prisoners was as much a show of creativity as an act of defiance.

It has also left its mark on the social history of the port city and is part of a new exhibition which opened at the weekend as part of the 10-day Fremantle Heritage Festival.

The Skin Sin exhibit is based on the collection of tattoo artist, collector and local historian Ricky Luder and includes an exhibition of some of the illicit work done by prisoners.

Fremantle Prison curator Olimpia Cullity said around two in five inmates had typically received at least one tattoo while in prison.

She said tattooing in prisons was sometimes used as a “proto-language”.

For example, some tattoos on the hands and face denoted a specific event or prison gang membership. Ms Cullity said there was a significant difference between ‘professional’ and ‘prisoner’ tattoos.

Camera iconFremantle prison tattoo. Source: Fremantle Prison Collection Credit: Fremantle Prison Collection

“While professional tattoo artists appropriately trace design patterns onto the skin, prison tattoos are usually drawn freehand,” she said.

“One way to apply a prison tattoo was by hand picking, where a sewing or hypodermic needle was repeatedly dipped in ink and stuck to the skin until a line was achieved.

“Often this form of prison tattooing was self-administered.

“More sophisticated application techniques for prison tattoos typically involved the use of an improvised rotary machine.

“Rotary machines were often made by prisoners using a motor from whatever device was available, such as a cassette recorder, an electric razor or an electric toothbrush.

“It was then connected to a guitar string or a sewing needle, which vibrates up and down on the barrel of a ballpoint pen.”

A former prisoner who will feature in the Skin Sin exhibit is local tattoo artist Bobby Thornton. Thornton, who died in 2009, decorated his prison cells with large, colorful tattoo-like designs.

Artwork on the wall of the former cell of famous prison tattoo artist Bobby Thornton at Fremantle Prison.  A display of prison tattoos is part of Fremantle Heritage Week which begins on Saturday.  MAY 23, 2018
Camera iconArtwork on the wall of the former cell of famous prison tattoo artist Bobby Thornton at Fremantle Prison. A display of prison tattoos is part of Fremantle Heritage Week which begins on Saturday. MAY 23, 2018 Credit: Danella Bevis Western Australian
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