When Janet Jackson flashed her breast at the 2004 SuperBowl creating a firestorm of controversy, she was wearing a Gauntlet nipple shield. The sunburst design was one I created in the mid 70s.
When you pay a visit to your local piercer and look at the tremendous variety of jewelry in their display case, it’s easy to assume it’s always been that way. What’s difficult to believe is that before Gauntlet, piercing enthusiasts were making do with earrings and all kinds of improvised contrivances. Although I’m always reluctant to blow my own horn, the truth is that I was personally responsible for many of the jewelry designs and piercing innovations most people take for granted.
Although Gauntlet officially became a business in November of 1975, it took nearly nine months before things began to come together enough for me to issue Gauntlet’s first jewelry “Folio.” To call it a catalog would be stretching things. It was simply a legal sized piece of heavy paper printed on both sides and folded into quarters. But to the best of my knowledge it was the first time any collection of body jewelry designs had ever been offered for sale to the public.
Despite Doug’s financial help, my budget was still very lean. I had little knowledge of photography, especially taking pictures of jewelry, which is an art unto itself. Since I couldn’t afford to hire a professional photographer and printing photographs would have been more costly, I chose to illustrate the first brochure myself with line drawings.
In these days of desktop publishing, younger people have no concept of what was involved to produce printed materials before the advent of the home computer. The process was in constant evolution, but in the mid 70s a common way was to take the copy to a local printer. There someone would type it into a special IBM Selectric typewriter — anyone remember typewriters? — equipped with memory. At the push of a button the text would then be printed onto special paper that would later be cut up and pasted by hand into the final layout. All very primitive by today’s standards. Headlines were often produced separately using fonts that were on a strip of film. Each letter was exposed onto light sensitive paper and when finished, processed in photo chemicals. As an alternative you could do as I did and use rubdown lettering for headlines.
I was still groping my way. It took time to design and “test drive” the nearly dozen items that appeared in the first brochure. As mentioned in an earlier column, my first design was the nipple retainer. The bead ring, a scaled up version of a fairly common earring design, followed this.
In the months and years to come, jewelry designs were always being developed and refined. Some became classics that are still being reproduced today; some were consigned almost immediately to history. Others lasted for a while, eventually fading into obscurity for lack of interest by customers. Still others ended up on the scrap heap because experience proved a particular design was no longer appropriate. Regardless of their longevity, many of them have an interesting story.
For a great many years the standard bead ring with the attached ball was Gauntlet’s bread and butter. But some members of the T&P group, and others, wanted a design that appeared to be continuous. Had it been practical they would have been quite happy to have the rings permanently soldered shut.
One of Gauntlet’s early competitors was a short-lived business called Whatever Rings. It was run by a couple of gay guys who were heavy S/M players. They operated out of their West Hollywood apartment and solicited business through ads in the local gay press. The business was primarily a means for them to entice men into an S/M scene.
The “jewelry” sold by Whatever Rings consisted of gold wire formed into simple gold rings. There was no closure. While they might look nice, I personally considered them impractical if not dangerous. From experiments I had done I knew it was difficult to get the ends to line up perfectly, particularly after the ring had been inserted into a piercing. This could mean discomfort if the gap rotated inside the piercing. The gap, no matter how small, could also trap debris and quickly become a breeding ground for germs that could lead to infection in a fresh piercing.
The “Seamless” Ring.
Still, some people liked the look and insisted they wanted it. So I tried to make something at least a little more practical. I called it a “Seamless” Ring. It still had the small gap, but I perfected a way of crafting a pin coupling which, if nothing else would keep the ends in alignment. To minimize the risk of infection, I insisted that customers wait until their piercings had healed before wearing this type of jewelry.
Unfortunately one of my customers discovered the shortcomings of the design not long after I’d inserted them into his nipple piercings. His name was Alden, and he was part of the T&P group. He also enjoyed rough sex play. Early one Monday morning he showed up on my doorstep. It was obvious something was wrong. Apparently he’d gotten into some pretty heavy action on Saturday night. Someone he was playing with got a little too rough with his nipple rings and one of them had sprung open inside the piercing. He couldn’t rotate the ring or remove it and was in great discomfort. I had to open the ring with a pair of ring expanding pliers in order to remove it. After that he understood the benefits of wearing a ring with a closure especially if he planned on a rough night.
Handcrafted jewelry locks
The S/M B/D community were a significant component of my early clientele. A very common request was for a piece of jewelry that could be permanently installed. For most people this was nothing more than a fantasy. They still wanted something that could be removed whenever they wished it. So I set out to see what I could do with locks.
Back when I’d lived in Denver I’d wanted to put a lock in my ear piercing. In the early 70s it was uncommon for a man to have an ear piercing at all, and stretched piercings were something you only saw in National Geographic. There was no way I could see to get a lock through my ear.
I had some basic jewelry making tools and was easily able to get some silver sheet and wire. Using these I constructed a crude working lock. This design with its broken shackle and another with a solid one, made their way into my first jewelry brochure.
Unfortunately these handcrafted locks were never practical. If worn on any semi-permanent basis, they would soon become bound up with disgusting gunk and nearly impossible to open. I attempted unsuccessfully to remedy the situation by replacing the tiny spring with a pad of silicone rubber. Making the locks became a job I dreaded. They involved a lot of work that seemed wasted because of the inherent problems. By the time I issued my second brochure I’d dropped the design with the broken shackle replacing it with a simulated lock that needed no key and had no mechanism to get fowled up. Eventually I discontinued locks altogether.
A jewelry prototype that never made it into production.
Other attempts at permanently installable jewelry were made, such as a triangular ring that had two eyes, one threaded, that could be closed with a small lock. Since they weren’t waterproof, even commercially manufactured locks weren’t practical for long term wear.
There were a few hardcore souls who seriously did want something permanent. Soldering, of course, was out of the question. I did find one successful solution. The balls on our standard bead ring were hollow. I would cut a groove around the end of the ring that went inside the ball and fill it with epoxy. When the ring was closed the cement would be forced into the groove where it would set and make the ring impossible to open.
Arrow of Eros
I’ve written previously about the early development of barbells. Once I’d mastered the manufacturing problems it seemed natural to design some variations. The first was what I called the Arrow of Eros. To maximize comfort I didn’t want the head to be sharp, so I modified the shape to something like a Native American arrowhead. The two ends were forged out of metal. These were then taken to an engraver who cut the details. From there rubber molds were made so that the pieces could be cast. Though never a best selling design it nonetheless remained in the Gauntlet line for over twenty years.
Other barbell variations followed. The second brochure included what I called Jeweled Studs. These had semiprecious stone beads set in pronged pearl settings. They were never very popular and in time disappeared from the line.
Over the years many other variations were introduced. None of them were ever as popular as the initial one with round balls which made it much more versatile.
An early nipple shield design.
To the best of my knowledge the concept of the nipple shield was original with Gauntlet. The idea was to offer a design that was more decorative and would appeal especially (though not exclusively) to women. As a gay man I still had a lot to learn about female anatomy because many of the first designs had an inside diameter that wouldn’t fit many female nipples!
At one point I contemplated using spring-loaded watchband pins to hold the shields on, but this proved impractical and unnecessary. The tension of the stretched nipple was sufficient to hold the shield in place.
S/M also had an influence especially on one particular design. Even in the early days there were people into play piercing. For them I came up with something like a spoked wheel which had a little more depth. This drew the nipple out so that hypodermic needles could be inserted through the spokes.
The septum retainer was a major breakthrough.
(Left: the original septum retainer, right: niobium retainers)
It might not exactly qualify as jewelry, but another early Gauntlet innovation was the septum retainer. You might be able to go to work with a septum piercing today, but in the 1970s it would have been unthinkable. Still, there were people who passionately wanted the piercing. That was my inspiration. The first septum retainers were made of oxidized copper wire covered with Teflon tubing. They were virtually invisible. Eventually they when replaced by an anodized niobium version which is offered by a number of manufacturers today.
Custom nipple jewelry.
Especially in the early years when I made almost all the jewelry myself, I had a number of clients who asked me to create something custom just for them. One of the first was Jim A. He wanted a simple gold nipple shield that would be held in place by a gold sword. The blade was made from quarter inch tubing that was pounded flat on one end, soldered shut, and shaped. A brass plug was soldered into the other end. This was drilled and tapped. The handle was wrapped with wire and a bit of flattened chain and ornamented with gold balls. Jim stretched his piercings up to a quarter inch just so he could wear his new jewelry.
Another man wanted a custom nipple shield. He told me he had a thing for feathers and wanted this reflected in the design. It was something of a challenge. Not wanting it to be big or heavy, the feathers have large cutouts and are counterbalanced by complementary shapes that are weighted with extra metal. He seemed pleased.
Multiple ear piercings weren’t exactly common in the early Gauntlet days. This man came in with two ear piercings and wanted an arrow made that would go through both of them. Here’s the result. The post was not straight but shaped to accommodate the piercings. The arrowhead was drilled and tapped to screw onto the post. It was so tiny that the only way I was able to screw it on was to use a pencil eraser with a slit cut in it to hold onto the arrowhead.
One of my more colorful clients was a Hungarian doctor who showed up on my doorstep one day. I was still working out of the house at the time, and he’d been referred to me by the Pleasure Chest, a sex shop that had recently opened in West Hollywood.
Dr. C was impeccably dressed in a suit and tie and had the bearing of a European gentleman. He explained that he wanted a frenum piercing. This was accomplished without a great deal of fuss.
I must confess I was a bit more nervous that usual. Although clean, the house and furniture were shabby. He was, after all, a doctor, and I was concerned that he would be uncomfortable being pierced in such an environment. Still, I brought out a clean bath towel and spread it on the couch for him to lie on. I laid out the bagged and sterilized equipment on a stainless tray. When I was finished he complemented me my technique as well as the cleanliness that I observed. It was a particular validation coming from him.
With casual European sophistication the good doctor told me that he and his wife were no longer sexually active. He had a young girlfriend who he particularly wanted to keep satisfied. To that end he commissioned me to make a cast gold frenum ring that would incorporate two penises and a ball on top that would stimulate her clitoris during intercourse. He quipped that he wanted to penetrate her with three penises.
Dr. C was quite happy with the finished piece of jewelry. Unfortunately he didn’t feel comfortable wearing it all the time, especially at the health club. Consequently he took it on and off frequently. Eventually the post would break off, and he would bring it to me for repair. The last time this happened he brought it in and chatted amiably about what a wonderful device it was. I told him how long it would take for the repair, and everything seemed satisfactory. I never saw him again. Whatever happened to him I never found out. After holding onto the piece of jewelry for several years, I eventually sold it.
For the first several years all my jewelry was either gold or a mixture of gold and silver. Although many clients wanted stainless steel I didn’t know how to make jewelry from that particular metal. Early on I attempted a design I called a triangular safety pin made out of stainless steel wire. It was abandoned fairly quickly because the hook closure tended to snag on clothes and bedding.
Gauntlet’s transition to stainless production was not an easy one. I resisted as long as possible and finally gave in because the price of gold had begun to rise alarmingly.
The challenges were many. First and foremost it was necessary to determine which of the hundreds of stainless steel alloys was appropriate for inserting into the body. The best information I was able to gather was that it needed to be low-carbon and nickel-free. At various times we made jewelry of 304 and 316 stainless. The industry standard today is 316L.
Then there was the matter of gauge. The standard gauge system used for steel wire is different from that used for gold and silver, so for the sake of consistency it was necessary to have all the stainless steel wire custom produced.
The coils of wire arrived from the mill and I discovered that it was too stiff to be easily shaped. Gold and silver can be softened, a process called annealing, quite easily by heating them red hot and quenching them immediately in cold water. If you do this to steel you only make it harder. The only way to get the wire soft was to send it out and have it professionally heat-treated.
At first I tried unsuccessfully to apply gold fabrication techniques to stainless steel. The results were disappointing to say the least. Eventually I found a company that was able to silver solder drilled stainless balls onto stainless steel rings and then electropolish them. For some reason the quality of the electropolishing was not reliable. Sometimes the surface was not mirror bright and on occasion the process was overdone and the rings came back measurably thinner than they should have been.
Many of these problems could have been eliminated had I not been convinced that the captive bead ring design was unsatisfactory. As someone who continually thought of piercing as an adjunct to sex play, I felt the ball could too easily come loose and get lost. I couldn’t imagine many people wanting to search for a ball lost inside a body cavity.
Stainless steel barbells presented their own difficulties. There was no way to produce them in house, so I went looking for a machinist to do the job for us. Part of the problem was that I had no idea how to locate the right person. The results were less than satisfactory. The first order of barbells I had made should never have seen the light of day much less been offered for sale. The machinist was unequipped to produce a stud with an internally threaded post. I ended up settling for externally threaded studs, and to say that I was frustrated is putting it mildly. In order to insert them without causing discomfort or damage to the individual, the externally threaded post first had to be dipped in melted wax. It was a compromise I hated.
When the stock began running low I started looking for another machinist and finally found one who was able to produce an internally threaded barbell stud. Unfortunately that was only half the challenge. The other was to produce a ball with male thread attached. The machinist produced short threaded pins that had to be secured into drilled and threaded balls. We tried various kinds of cement without success and ended up having to silver solder them. It was a solution, although again less than 100% satisfactory.
On occasion clients would ask why Gauntlet’s stainless steel jewelry was so expensive. I always told them that they could buy a nut and bolt at the hardware store for pennies because they were manufactured by the millions. At that time there simply weren’t enough people who needed stainless steel body jewelry to mass produce it like hardware. All that has certainly changed.
Niobium body jewelry, another Gauntlet innovation, is wildly popular today and available almost everywhere. In the early 80s craftspeople were beginning to make regular jewelry from anodized niobium. It was incredibly beautiful, and when I learned just how inert the metal was, I realized its great potential. The material was fairly inexpensive and could be anodized in an array of bright colors. It took some effort to perfect the technique.
The anodizing process required that the metal piece be attached to an electrode and submerged in a solution mostly of water. The more oxygen the solution could make available to the process, the better the results. Different craftspeople had their own secret formulas. I heard of someone who used Coca-Cola. What seemed to work best for me was a solution containing non-chlorine bleach.
Since there is no practical way to solder niobium, I finally was forced to embrace the captive bead ring. From then on it became part of Gauntlet’s jewelry line.
It’s been almost thirty years since I started Gauntlet, but the ideas and innovations that it pioneered are very much with us today. I often wish I were receiving royalties. I’d be a very rich man.
Next: The First Piercing Store Opens its Doors
Suspensions & Tensions:
CONGRATULATIONS O-KEE-PA GRADUATES!
In the past few months I’ve become aware that many others (photos, stories) beside me have tried and succeeded in being suspended vertically by two piercings in the chest — in essence, doing O-Kee-Pa the hard way.
I’ve seen your photos on the BME site. But I am not quite sure you had the depth of experience the Mandans (or I) had. Please tell me. I’ve sent feelers out to several suspension groups, but so far gotten no feedback. As the guy who kind of started all this in the first place (by example and photos) I truly feel responsible for what happens to you. I am very eager to hear from you if you have ever done an O-Kee-Pa style suspension. How long did you hang? Under what circumstances? Where did you go? What were the after effects? Please send Fakir an email about your experience.
Most of the suspensions I have facilitated and witnessed during the past thirty years resulted in unusual and often fantastic out-of-the-body adventures. One of the most interesting was that of a Catholic woman, Sharon C., who pleaded with me for several years to facilitate her suspension and be her shaman Ka-See-Ka guide/protector. Ten years ago, we made it happen. About seventy of us were gathered in Northern California at a place called Kenton Mine. We were there for two weeks so there was plenty of time to prepare for a special ritual. Since I had hung horizontally for long periods of time in years prior, we decided that a horizontal suspension by multiple piercings was the best way for Sharon to have the prolonged experience she desired. We wanted at least several hours up. Back then, none of us had ever heard of or tried doing this with modified fish hooks. That came several years later. So we settled on piercing the front side of her body with 22 long sterile piano wire loops as I had done several times.
On a sunny afternoon in a deep canyon filled with redwood trees, I pierced her body with the wires, bent them into loops and attached them to the frame I had devised for my own suspensions. The tribe assembled. We beat drums, burned sage, and chanted for beneficial spirits to guide Sharon on her journey. Slowly we inched her pierced body up off the mats on which it laid. Up under the branches of the thousand year old sacred Redwood Tree which seemed to murmur, “let me take this body to its source.” We were hushed and within several minutes, Sharon left her body. It was inanimate “meat” hanging high in the air beneath the branches of the tree.
As the Ka-See-Ka who assumed responsibility for her journey, I was able to see what she saw in her disconnected state. First, she traveled to her private hell (a barren place with no signs of life) and them to her private heaven. I was able to communicate with her lifeless body, and, most unusual, she was able to speak through it! When lost in despair in her “hell” space, I suggested she turn around, look over her shoulder, and see what was behind her. There it was, her private heaven: a verdant forest filled with trees, birds, flowers, and fuzzy buffalos who smiled and wanted to play with her. I told Sharon she could fly and should go down and circle the forest below. She did and soon rested in a comfortable nest in the top of a tree. I told her she could go play with the animals below if she wanted.
“But they are smelly and dirty,” she said.
“That’s ok,” I told her. “You don’t have to step in their shit. You can fly now so just go down and fly above their heads.”
Sharon giggled and I saw her do this and tease the animals as she flew over them. There were many other odd adventures during her journey but finally, as she despaired for company, a luminous being who appeared as an animated blue infinity symbol, spoke to her and then buried itself deep in her heart center. It said to her, “Peace… Be Still”.
But this is not the end of the chapter and book for Sharon. The memory and lesson it held stayed with her to the end. Two years ago, Sharon developed ever worsening kidney failure. On dialysis, she felt the time had come to leave her body permanently. She called me. She was glowing, happy, radiant, as she announced her decision to disconnect from machines. She was not frightened of passing over into the unseen world. She had been there before. Sharon thanked me for my love and guidance. And she parted this world joyously.
JOURNEYS OF OTHER SEEKERS
Another dear friend of mine, Puma (see Body Play #9), had undergone a severe personal crisis in which he had been taken over by an extremely self-destructive (read suicidal) dark side, the “shadow side” which we all have. He went on barely functioning and seemingly headed for a bitter end. A year later, still troubled, he asked me to hang him up by two deep chest piercings. He pleaded to do the O-Kee-Pa seriously and privately so he could resolve this on-going power struggle with the negative energy that was controlling his life. This was to be an attempt to chase the “shadow” away once and for all.
In the absolute quiet of an indoor chamber, Puma was compelled to engage in a long and painful combat (his private hell) before he could let go and surrender; submit his mind and body to what was actually a “shamanic death”. He groaned and fought to stay in conscious control as I slowly inched his body upward against the chest piercings. When he finally let go, suspended, he appeared to be physically dead. His lover pleaded with me to let him down. But I saw Puma’s other electric body shape floating weightless and smiling at me from a remote corner of the room. He was ok. So I let his physical body hang motionless for another ten minutes.
When I finally let Puma’s lifeless form down, just as light flickered back into his eyes, I saw the “shadow” inside them screaming in agony. A voice behind these fiery eyes seemed to say, “If this is what you are going to do to me, I’ll leave!”
And within ten minutes the Puma we know and loved was back in those eyes — exhausted, happy and free. Characteristic of a truly transformative experience, the effect lingers on years later. Puma told me just a few days ago, “I’ll never forget what happened. This was a truly spiritual experience for me and I continue to draw strength from it every day.”
But not every suspension ends with such beneficial results as Sharon’s and Puma’s. Sometimes things go sour when our expectations or approach to the suspension is off-key. I have attended a bunch of these and that is why I am so fussy about having clear intent, inner guidance, and not being swayed by ego when I am advising or helping someone do a suspension. Several suspensions that went wrong come to mind as I write this column. The first was done several years ago by Idexa, the San Francisco tattoo artist. I asked her to write about her vertical suspension that went wrong for Body Play magazine. In her own words, here is what she wrote for Body Play #14:
Another “sour” suspension I witnessed in the last few years was Paul Stolz’s first attempt to do an O-Kee-Pa. On previous occasions I had seen him do several horizontal suspensions facilitated by Vaughn of Body Manipulations. These were sweet — no problems (read the description that follows). But, apparently overcome with self-confidence by them, he decided it would be “no sweat” to hang by two piercings in the chest like I had done. He talked to me several weeks prior.
I warned that this would be different, many magnitudes harder and could not be done without surrendering ego. I told him that after about one minute he would have to go through all the symptoms of drowning or suffocating. Was he ready for that? I asked if he wanted me to “Ka-See-Ka” him. “No, just come and witness,” he said.
So that’s what I did. No rescue offered.
The suspension got off to a good start. Joey Wyman did an expert, shamanic job of piercing two hooks in Paul’s chest, deep and just above the nipples. He took the piercings with a stoic smile. With the same bravado, he stood on a platform dressed in tight black pants and silver boots. This was his moment of glory. He motioned for Vaughn to lift him up with the vertical crane to which he was fastened. Up he went clear to the ceiling. But, as I had warned, the stoic smile and bravado only lasted about two minutes. Then Paul was in obvious distress. His breathing became difficult, rapid. He panicked. His arms flailed about wildly as he gave Vaughn the prearranged signal to bring him down immediately. Paul lay limp on the floor in shock, eyes glazed and pupils dilated. He didn’t quite know where he was or what had happed in those few brief minutes. They helped him upstairs and laid him on a bed like a rag doll. I sat by his side for half an hour moving energy and bringing him back to center. He was ill for about a week. I understand Paul has said the O-Kee-Pa was harder than he ever imagined and he will never try it again.
PAUL FLIES LIKE A BIRD
Unlike his negative experience above, Paul has also had his magical suspensions too. Not everyone has a “White Light” experience like Fakir. There seems to be a different “trip” each time and for each person. Sometimes it is only a heightened sense of body awareness made possible by dissociation (the observer state). And sometimes the strongest effects of a suspension are only felt hours, days, or weeks after the experience. And sometimes nothing much happens except an unusual or adverse set of body sensations because of unfavorable physical or psychic conditions (like with Idexa or Paul above).
Paul Stolz belongs to a group of Modern Primitive explorers. I first met Paul in 1996. Paul invited me to his first “flying suspension” in which he would be moved about freely in three axis by a 3-ton crane inside a huge warehouse building. He knew very little about traditional body suspensions like the O-Kee-Pa of the Mandans or Chidi Mari suspensions of the Hindus. I asked about his intentions, his expectations. He was unclear about them. Seemed like he was satisfied just to do something new, novel, experimental. He wanted to “fly”. Ok, that was a good enough reason. So on evening of March 22, I went to the San Francisco warehouse which had been converted into a performance and play space called The Sand Box (the floor was ankle deep in beach sand).
I entered just as Paul was being lifted up in a horizontal, face-up suspension by multiple hooks. As he floated twenty feet above our heads, then gently moved about the cavernous space by Vaughn, it felt like “electric rain” was showering down on me from his suspended body. There were only a few friends present. The general feeling in the space was peaceful, tingling. Paul was on a trip and in an altered state. The suspension lasted for about an hour. In his own words, here is Paul’s account of his Sandbox suspension (from Body Play #14):
So here are just a few examples and accounts of what has happened to contemporary seekers who have experienced suspensions. How about yours? There are so many experiences I wish to share with you that there will have to be a Part 3 and maybe even a Part 4 to this edition of Fakir Rants & Raves. See you next time for “Swimming With Dolphins” and more.
Yours for safe and enlightened body rites,
Go to prison, get a free tattoo.
The Canadian government has recently announced plans to open sanctioned tattoo studios in our prisons. The studios would be staffed by prisoners, but they would have proper contamination control including hard disinfectable surfaces, autoclaves, and gloves — none of which are available in “normal” prison tattooing, and all of which are considered essential for safe tattooing. There will be some restrictions on the tattoos permitted (no gang tattoos for example), and prisoners would have to “pay” for the cost of their tattoos out of their own pocket — although that will be only a few dollars (just the price of the needles and ink). A bit over $100,000 has been initially committed to the plan, which will open five prison-based tattoo studios by the end of the year.
Conservative Canadian politicians have denounced this plan, and US media has used it as yet another reason to make fun of the Dudley Do-Right softies north of the border. The conservative stance on the issue is that since tattooing is wrong (it is currently forbidden in prisons), it shouldn’t be legalized any more than cocaine should be legalized. Why should prisoners be given well stocked tattoo studios and essentially free tattoos, when people who haven’t been incarcerated have to pay $100 an hour or more for the same service? Inmates already receive free cable TV (including soft-core porn), are allowed to order delivery pizza, and, as FOX News put it last year when commenting on the luxurious Canadian prison system, “what’s next — flavored condoms?”
But all of that misses the point.
Tattooing inside prisons isn’t about getting a cute little pink star or a fancy Polynesian sleeve that you’ve spent the last year fine-tuning with your artist. Tattooing inside prisons is both an important part of the social structure, and is essential for keeping the individual alive, sane, and in control of their identity to at least a small extent. To state it in its simplest terms, the cohesion tattooing provides helps keep people alive, and half of all prisoners in Canada are tattooed while behind bars. Removing tattooing from prisons simply isn’t going to happen. A hundred years of efforts have had no effect, and a hundred years more won’t change it either. People will continue to leave prison with more tattoos than when they entered. It’s how the system works, and it’s how people survive the system.
Above, two tattoos obtained surreptitiously in prison… Did the wearers get more
than they bargained for when they had them applied? (Photos: BME Archives)
Hepatitis C is a fatal disease with no cure. It is most easily passed by blood to blood contact. In Canadian prisons, over a quarter of all inmates have this disease — thirty times the national norm. Similar numbers exist in prisons all over the world (some US states have rates as high as 40%). Much of it is believed to be spread by unsanitary tattooing inside the prisons. Hepatitis is also being spread by unprotected sex of course, but Canadian prisons already provide condoms in an attempt to curb this method of transmission. The other major source of blood borne pathogen spread inside prisons is IV drug use (and yes, Corrections Canada is also considering a needle-exchange program). The goal is to take a tough no-win situation, and find the solution that does the least harm.
But to put it clearly — 26% of people that enter Canadian prisons leave with a fatal disease with no cure. The factors contributing to these infections are arguably out of the control of the prisoner. They are an unavoidable byproduct of the structure of the prison systems. What this statistic means is that if a dozen people are sent to prison for auto theft, while they’ll all leave prison when their sentence ends, statistically three of them will die early from a disease they caught in that prison… thereby escalating their sentence to include the death penalty (preceded by an extended period of medical “torture”).
The prison system has an obligation to both the public and the prisoners they’re attempting to reform to hand down the sentence demanded by the courts. Not less, and certainly not more. It is utterly unacceptable to hand out five year sentences, but then subtext that with “PS. sorry, but we’ll also have to accidentally kill a quarter of you because we can’t keep prisons safe enough.”
Certainly there are dangers in a prison. Inmates will fight. Inmates will even kill each other at times. There is a dangerous chaos in prisons that’s hard to eliminate, but there are other dangers that are easier to eliminate. Tattoo safety is one of the easiest and most obvious ways to reduce needless danger to prisoners. Those who try and block these initiatives knowing the facts are simply trying to slip in severe penalties for minor crimes without the approval of the judicial system, a corrupt and inhumane act that needs to be denounced. We’ve just seen in the current prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq how easy it is for otherwise decent people from civilized nations to allow horrendous wrongs to be done to prisoners. We need to ask ourselves if providing an environment of incarceration so dangerous that a quarter of criminals — no matter what their crime was — are randomly assigned the death penalty, goes farther than we are comfortable as decent civilized people ourselves.
Now, maybe you’re saying “prison is supposed to suck”. I’m not interested in debating here whether prison is there for punishment or for reform — the real question is are we doing unjust and unnecessary damage to society both inside and outside of prisons due to our managerial decisions regarding how prisons are run? When a quarter of prisoners leave prison with an incurable fatal disease, you’re going to have a lot of collateral damage — more people will be infected, and the cost of treating them when the symptoms start to kick in cost taxpayers needless money. One should also consider that telling a recently released prisoner that they’re going to die an unpleasant death because of going to prison — and that nothing will ever change that — is going to greatly increase their chances of repeating and escalating their criminal behavior.
Hopelessness will do that to people.
Even if a prisoner leaves prison without catching Hep C from their tattoos, they’ll still be left with obvious jailhouse tatties, stigmatizing them and making them an outcast from normal society. This, again, increases their chances of repeating their crimes and hurting innocent people. It’s true that all tattooed people have a little more difficulty finding work because of the bigotry of the plainskins, but a well-executed tasteful tattoo is far less stigmatizing than something that was obviously hand-poked in dim light behind bars using cigarette ashes and green toothpaste. Being covered in tattoos effectively branding the wearer as an incompetent loser also shatters their own self-esteem, again leading to hopelessness and continued problems for them and the community around them.
As I see it, we have two options: we either accept that a high percentage of prisoners will be killed due to the prison experience, or we allow safe tattoo studios to be set up inside prisons (and take similar precautions in other arenas as well). If we choose the first option, juries must start considering that in their sentencing — after all, “three years incarceration” and “three years incarceration plus a fatal disease” are an order of magnitude apart, given that the latter kills the poor bastard who’s just been found guilty. On the other hand, if we choose the option of allowing safe studios in prisons, we’ll not be able to so easily slip people a surprise death penalty… and we’ll have to invest far less money than we’d spend cleaning up the damage if we didn’t.
Some people have implied that proper tattoo studios are a part of a “slippery slope” that makes prisons cushier and cushier — soon people will want to go to prison. To that I call bullshit! This isn’t a debate about a black and white television versus a big-screen color TV with all the sports channels. This is about taking an activity that goes on in prisons and isn’t going to stop, and making it as safe as possible in order to serve the public need. It makes sense even if you ignore all benefits to the prisoner. This is good for everyone.
By adding safe tattoo studios to prisons, Canada is ensuring that the prison system will be less costly to the taxpayer, and that the societal damage done by the necessarily harsh conditions inside our penitentiaries is minimized and contained. It’s wonderful to see tattooing being used to heal criminals, rather than harm them and keep them down and breaking the law. I hope other countries follow Canada’s initiative in this pioneering effort.