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Inked in the clink

Former inmate Victor Sandifer talks about the art of the jailhouse tattoo

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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. Walk through any Walmart and you’ll see a slovenly parade of assorted inked badges on people – festooned swag signifying trivial gains, unbroken loyalties, panoramas of mulleted heroics and an assortment of other postmortem Americana – all of it peppered across the arms, necks and legs of moms, dads, dudes, chicks and ghostly strangers as well as spendthrift trustafarians rocking $2,000 sleeves while gumming on the teat of outsider culture.

But no tattoos carry as much weight, respect, menace and symbolic power as those of ex-convicts tattooed in prison. 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 the world of real outlaws: long-timers, gangsters, one-percenters, killers, hardened criminals, shanks, shakedowns, race riots, solitary confinement and a host of other things that characterize the insular culture broiling within the confines of the American prison system. It’ll put some saltpeter in your bad blood, quick.

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, bearing 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. With his razor-wire squint and institutional tan, Sandifer still has the lean muscularity of an inmate as well as the tense peripheral awareness of someone who has served time in institutions where sedate calm can be interrupted by bloodshed at any moment. Aside from that, Sandifer is pretty shy about his tattooing, saying the thought of being a working tattoo artist on the “outside” never really occurred to him until recently.

Dege Legg: Where have you done time in Louisiana?

Victor Sandifer: I been in almost every prison in Texas and Louisiana. That’s over a 21-year career.

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