Hard cases: prison tattooing as visual argument.

Author:McNaughton, Melanie Joy

As I moved through the prison with my cameras, I became fascinated with the tattoos. I saw thousands of them.... A few times, I encountered Justice. She was patterned after the traditional figure, blindfolded and holding her simple scales. I questioned a convict in the gym about his blind Justice, a statuesque figure draped so both full breasts fell free of her gown. "This is as far as it goes," he said, shifting a thirty-pound dumbbell from his right hand to his left and starting to count out a set of slow curls. I asked what he meant. "I mean, man," he grunted, "there is no fucking justice. The bitch's a whore." --Douglas Kent Hall (46) The penitentiary offers an intriguing opportunity to engage the rhetoric of the everyday, to investigate how people make arguments--particularly for specific identities and social selves--in the absence of significant (or even any) face-to-face dialogue. The penitentiary also offers an intriguing opportunity to explore the body's role in visual argumentation. Although visual argument is increasing in popularity and focus among communication scholarship, the role of the body in visual argumentation, particularly the operation of tattooing as visual argument, remains unexplored. Given daily contact with the bodies of others, understanding the ways that bodies argue visually is important to understanding the operations of rhetoric in our lives.

Claiming the body as a site for visual argument is not without difficulties and is quite possibly a contentious argument in itself. Scholars traditionally celebrate argument as belonging to the classical public sphere--a wide-reaching construction unhelpful for understanding argumentation as it functions in nonpublic communities. In particular, because the body cannot be fully public (1) and is understood as the antithesis of deliberative discourse, the belief that argument is public axiomatically excludes the body as a site for argumentation. (2) Furthermore, the almost exclusive attention paid to public qualities of argument has obscured the ways in which argument might function in nonpublic but still social settings like the penitentiary.

This essay points to some of the ways in which bodies function as argument, operating by way of claims supported by evidence and reasoning. My primary purpose is to explore prison tattooing in men's penitentiaries (3) as visual argumentation. Owing to the limited choices available to prisoners for expression, argumentative or otherwise, prisoners (4) must use nontraditional avenues for social communication. My second purpose is to expand visual argumentation theory by calling on Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca to show how argument functions in the unique social construct of the penitentiary.

I begin by briefly discussing penitentiary culture. I then turn to visual argumentation and contextualize this body of scholarship within sociological and ethnographic literature on prison tattooing. Lastly, I explore the particular arguments that prison tattooing makes. This analysis is illustrated with prison tattoos (5) and informed by prisoners' narratives, which explain their experiences with incarceration in a way no outsider's perspective ever could. In so doing, this essay addresses the issue of social arguments in nonpublic spheres, coherently explains why tattoos are so predominant in the penitentiary, and lends a public voice to individuals who are denied one.


As panopticon, the penitentiary is an institution that works to exert total control over the lives of those within its system, a mission easily discerned from its physical structure (Goffman 72). Once having been particularized individuals with autonomy and agency, prisoners are faced with becoming indistinguishable members of a group with no freedom to act. Removing personal possessions that designate identity has acute and wide-reaching effects. (6) Compounding the psychological effects of physical strictures, the prisoner's status as subordinate is reified constantly through the penitentiary routine. As one prisoner recounts, "the only decision I can make is what time I go to sleep, and when I go to the loo, and what time I decide to eat my food.... [T]he biggest decision I've got is the fact that I can take my life or I can keep living" (qtd. in Medlicott 167). Because penitentiary life is so totalizing, so degrading, small privileges or moments of autonomy acquire special importance.

One of the penitentiary's primary functions is the elimination of a public sphere for those within its walls, which drastically limits prisoners' ability to construct individual and communal identities, including the arguments that affirm these identities and the means for communicating them. In an environment in which the typical deliberative tools (language) for communicating individual and group identity are foreclosed, to what do people turn as an avenue for communication? In such an environment, body art (in the form of prison tattooing) becomes the means for social argumentation. With no opportunity for public interaction, this argumentation cannot be verbal and is therefore visual--accessible and understandable virtually instantaneously.



To explore prison tattooing as visual argumentation, first we must consider both argumentation in general and visual argumentation specifically. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's The New Rhetoric offers a valuable framework through which to engage prison tattooing as visual argumentation. Three interconnected themes emerge from current scholarship on visual argumentation: the enthymematic construction of visual argumentation, the context needed for visual argumentation to function, and the holistic nature of visual argumentation.

Available Means: Visual Arguments as Enthymematic Discourse

The most important and foundational feature of visual argument is its enthymematic nature. (7) Like photographs, prison tattoos argue enthymematically. However, the cultural knowledge needed to read the visual arguments of prison tattoos is much more specialized, making these tattoos significantly less accessible than either photographs or verbal arguments.

Bodies argue enthymematically through a process of decoding, which Richard Sennett describes in The Fall of Public Man:

Decoding means you take a detail of behavior as a symbol for an entire character state. Just as, say, the color of a scarf or the number of buttons undone on a blouse may symbolize a woman's sexual looseness, so small details of appearance or manner can symbolize a political stance. These details seem to indicate what kind of person espouses the ideology.... In this case, you have decoded what he means by how he looks. (238)

Sennett's description clearly delineates decoding as an enthymematic process. As visual argument, prison tattoos operate by decoding: audiences decipher what prisoners mean to say by how they, or their tattoos, look. For example, consider the claim that fellow prisoners or penitentiary guards might deduce about the prisoner depicted in Figure 1: this prisoner is a member of a neo-Nazi group. The missing major and minor premises, filled in by the audience, are that members of neo-Nazi groups have swastika tattoos, and that this prisoner has a swastika tattoo (clutched in the outstretched talons of an eagle in flight) on his upper left chest. Or take a more common claim: this prisoner is a violent or disreputable person. The missing major and minor premises are that violent or disreputable persons are covered in tattoos, and that this prisoner is covered in tattoos. This claim, that the prisoner must be a violent or disreputable person, is both argued and answered in the same moment, through the same device: his tattoos.

Despite the simplicity of the arguments proffered above, decoding can be a complicated process. Although "some aspects of prison gang tattoos can be decoded by outsiders, other features function as a secret language that is reserved for members only, and still other elements reflect relatively [personal] information" (Phelan and Hunt 294). "A prison gang tattoo," Phelan and Hunt elaborate, "might convey some public attributes (e.g., machismo), information intended for the 'own' or 'wise' (e.g...

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