Marked Men: Masculinity, Mobility, and Convict Tattoos, 1919-1940.

AuthorTepperman, Alex

IN THE FALL OF 1922 JONATHAN B. CROSSED THE THRESHOLD OF New Mexico State Penitentiary, sent up by state prosecutors on a one-year larceny conviction. The 31-year-old railroad switchman brought with him into prison a variety of tattooed images that spoke to a broad, hyper-masculine, and ethnocentric curiosity of the outside world. Etched on his biceps and forearms were, among other pictures, crisscrossed United States and Cuban flags, a "Chinese woman," and a "Jap dragon." (1) A few thousand miles away, 26-year-old steamfitter Bruce G. entered Pittsburgh's Western State Penitentiary on a breaking and entering conviction, adorned with depictions of an "Indian maid with headdress" and a "Japanese maid wearing kimono and holding [a] parasol." (2) Soon after, Gregory B., an Illinois-born cook, checked into Sacramento County's Folsom State Prison on a burglary conviction, bringing with him pictures of a "dragon head," "tiger," and a "Japanese dancing girl." (3)

Despite their seemingly exotic tastes in tattoo art, the three nonviolent criminals appear at first blush to be no more educated or worldly than the average white US male of the time. Each was literate but had no college education, lived within a heterosexual nuclear household, and staked out a career as a transient semiskilled laborer. (4) The seeming averageness of the three convicts is what makes the fact that each man was, like scores of his fellow inmates, emblazoned with Orientalized images connoting intercultural contact and hypermasculinity worthy of reflection. Prisoners of the interwar period (1919-1940) regularly marked their bodies with images of sexualized Romani, Mexican, Asian, and Native American women; the names of distant locales; and exotic or mythical creatures.

An extraordinarily large number of interwar convicts belonged to a US working-class culture that was more worldly, mobile, and pluralistic than criminologists and historians have generally assumed. Having frequently served in the armed forces before falling into the transient working class that filled out the rolls of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the underemployed urban bachelor subculture of the early twentieth century indirectly fostered the creation of a convict class which used tattoos to share experiences and build bonds that they carried with them throughout the country and behind bars.

This article looks to the tattoos inmates brought into the interwar prison as a uniquely valuable medium for exploring the ways in which convicts imported their ideologies into the penitentiary and relayed a variety of common values through cultural totems. I find that tattoos served, at once, as identifiers of a collective inmate identity based in a set of shared life experiences, an individual marker of identity, and a subcultural means of maintaining group distance from the societal mainstream. Tattoos, through their permanence and relative rareness in Western culture at the time, provided authentic, performative expressions of personal and collective sentiments that existed outside of the confines of the English language. Furthermore, they provide scholars with some anthropological evidence as to the motivating mentalities and common bonds that yoked inmates within US prisons prior to the trailblazing ethnographies of the 1940s and 1950s (Clemmer 1940/1958, Sykes 1958).

By reading into the messages conveyed on inmates' bodies, we might start to develop a more nuanced appreciation of prison inmate politicization in the years preceding the supposed wartime and postwar origins of a convict political identity (Gottschalk 2006, Rotman 1995). Such readings also provide a framework for understanding national-level political agitation among convicts decades before the rise of an official prisoners'rights movement (Cummins 1994, Pallas & Berber 1973). Rather than treat interwar convicts as prepolitical and requiring the importation of antiwar, middleclass, liberal agitators to stoke organized pushback, then, I look to restore agency to the prisoners of the interwar period by acknowledging the unique cultural underpinnings of prison communities. To this end, I use tattoos as an entree into the working-class political ethos among inmates of that time.

Theoretical and Historiographic Analyses of the Interwar Prisoner Culture

Criminologists and legal historians have, in recent years, had extraordinary success merging the study of the civil rights movement and the rise of the modern prison, thereby better contextualizing the highly racialized state of present-day mass imprisonment (Berger 2014, Hinton 2017, Murakawa 2014). Attempts at connecting civil rights to mass imprisonment have led scholars to the prisoners' rights movement, a broad amalgam of state and federal legal decisions in cases initiated by prisoners, and to a series of inmate rebellions that found their best-known expression in a wave of riots throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. Accordingly, for many scholars, the period from 1960 to 1980 signifies the origins of national convict politicization, with mass prisoner uprisings serving as cultural touchstones of a broad social-political shift in attitudes toward convict rights (Thompson 2017, Useem & Kimball 1991).

The extraordinary work on the formal prisoners' rights movement has resulted in the prevailing notion, however, that the national politicization of US convicts was simply a by-product of the civil rights struggle or, in the case of earlier agitations throughout the 1950s, of a rote "convict code" (Berkman 1979, Pallas & Berber 1973). The few scholars who have addressed the ubiquitous prisoner agitation of the 1930s discussed here have minimized those events, describing them either as ad hoc, poorly organized, and not having intellectual or administrative cohesion until the appearance of war-resisting middle-class radicals in the federal prison system in the 1940s (Gottschalk 2006, 171; Rotman 1995, 188), or as a brief series of atomized skirmishes that had been all but snuffed out by the early 1930s (McLennan 2008, 454-56). Depression-era uprisings, in actuality, included sympathy strikes, passive resistance, media blitzes, and inmate-designed bureaucratic structures, including race committees and managerial hierarchies. By considering the men who made up prison communities, then, we might better understand those convicts' behaviors as ambitious, political, and expressive of broader cultural values.

Inmate Culture, Community, Language, and Tattoos

Although there exists a small, very effective historical literature on the social ecology of the interwar prison (Blue 2012, McLennan 2008), few scholars have attempted to extend the discussion of prison culture beyond the walls of the penitentiary itself. Additionally, the demographic groups most frequently located within the prison--young men, the poor, and urban dwellers--are often elided from the dominant literature on interwar prison life, communication, and organization, despite Chicago school sociologists of the period having produced an array of remarkable studies about "social undesirables" in urban settings (Park & Burgess 1925/1984, Zorbaugh 1929) in the years immediately preceding the first wave of classic prison ethnographies (Clemmer 1940/1958, Simons 1933, Sykes 1958). That interwar-era studies of inmate culture do not draw from the dominant sociological literature of the time signifies one of the bigger gaps in the literature.

One of the more significant absences from interwar studies of prison communities is Nels Anderson's The Hobo (1923). Focused on issues of hypermobility, social disorganization, and countercultural lifestyles, Anderson's ethnography records the symbology and pictographic communications of one segment of the country's chronically homeless population. Though the monograph serves as perhaps the most trenchant study of subcultural community formation and communication of the time, those studying interwar prison populations tend to ignore it. Midcentury prison studies followed Anderson only in noting how a shared language (argot) or set of values imported from free-world countercultures created a sense of connectedness among inmates, though they continue to refrain from seriously interrogating the role of cultural importations grounded in static images within prison communities. Though Clemmer, Sykes, and others considered the larger importance of spoken argot, for instance, they spent almost no time interrogating the inmate body itself, despite the presence of tattoo images representing important subcultural totems and functioning as efficient forms of communication.

Because prisoners brought their tattoos in from the outside world, this article also serves to revisit the importation vs. deprivation debates of the 1960s and 1970s. Once social scientists established the existence, and certain generalizable features, of inmate societies, major figures in the field leaned into broader explanations of the foundational nature of those societies. This meant asking whether inmate communities developed their codes, rules, and mores primarily within or without the institution itself (Thomas 1975). Deprivation theory (also known as adaptation theory) assumed that the prison was such a powerful and dominant institution that it essentially wiped out the overriding differences between inmates and made them all, first and foremost, convicts (Clemmer 1940/1958, Sykes 1958, Sykes & Messinger 1960). Although prisoners were not tabula rasa, carrying with them certain elements of their home worlds, the thinking went, once-diverse populations were made mostly similar by their experience behind bars. The development of a convict code, then, was not so much a negotiation of distinct cultures but a new culture developed in direct response to the dominant values of an oppressive, hegemonic institution. In its determinative outlook, deprivation theory...

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