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Inked in the clink

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

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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. I was young and built pretty good. I could fight. I can still fight, but I hate to. But you got to get your respect, then they don’t mess with you. Soon as you get there, you’re going to fight. It’s unavoidable. Have to fight back. They’ll challenge you just to see what you’re made of. If they find a weakness, you’re in bad shape. You’ll never get out of it.

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. The heat tempers it into it a perfect point. Then you cut it to length with fingernail clippers. Slide it through your barrel, mount it to the hub on top of your motor and then hook the wires to four AA batteries. Mount it to your wrist with an Ace bandage – you’ve got yourself a tattoo gun.

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.

How much for a sleeve?


How do they pay it?

Sometimes I get it in “commissary” – stuff that they buy from the prison store. Some have their people send me a money order to my prison account. If it’s just a small piece, I do it for two or three packs of smokes. You do more single pieces than sleeves, because money’s obviously hard to come by.

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