You might’ve seen prisoners tattooing each other in films and dramas; a person who came in clean might come out inked! But have you ever wondered where these rebels get their hands on a prison tattoo gun?
No prison in the world allows tattoo guns and needles, and neither do they officially allow tattooing – convicted felons with guns in their hands don’t seem too great, do they?
So if you’re keen on finding out how prisoners ink themselves and others or get prison tattoos, it’s a combination of technique, skill, experience, and patience, with a bit of touch of MacGyver.
Related: best wireless tattoo guns
Materials for Making a Prison Tattoo Gun
Making the perfect tattoo machine is all about the essentials: ink, needles, power source, and a robust design. Here’s your complete guide to making a prison tattoo gun. Let’s start with the basics.
1. Prison Tattoo Ink
Most prison tattoos are black and white or shades of gray. And there’s a reason for that: most prison tattoo ink is made using soot, or what is called ‘lamp black’ in the world of tattoo art.
How to make soot:
Here is how prisoners generally make soot for their tattoo ink:
- Tightly twist some toilet paper and roll it in some grease (like Vaseline) or oil. Commissary or cooking oil is usually stolen from the prison kitchen.
- Set the twisted toilet paper on fire and hold it under any smooth metal surface such as a prison bed or the inside of a locker.
- After some time, the tip of the flame will start depositing pure black soot (lampblack) on the foot of the metal surface.
- Once sufficient soot is deposited, scrape it off from the surface and collect it on paper. Glossy paper is a good option since the soot will stick to it.
- Mix the collected soot with your preferred blender/liquid, and you’ll have permanent black ink, which is ideal for tattooing.
- To create shades of gray, dilute the soot with some water. But this also takes practice since you need to add just the right amount to get a good gray color.
Soot tattoo ink is made by combining soot, water, and some liquid binder. Binder is required because soot and water are immiscible, and it helps them mix. Some people also combine water and soot with hand lotion or toothpaste, but the most commonly used recipe to make soot ink by beginners is:
- One tablespoon soot
- Ten drops of water
- One drop of shampoo or liquid soap
Less common tattoo ink is made using acrylic paints that are sold to prisons for art activities. When it is rested for a period, the acrylic binder and pure pigment will separate. The binder is then absorbed with some toilet paper.
And then there’s a third less-heard-of and less common option – original tattoo ink. The latter is smuggled by correctional staff.
2. Prison Tattoo Needles
Now that you’ve made permanent black ink, you need the right set of needles.
Amateurs usually use sewing needles that are sold in kits available at the commissary. The perfect needle is thin and very sharp so that there is minimal damage to the skin. However, these needles are incredibly thick and can cause too much trauma to the skin.
Making tattoo needles in prison:
The most common item used for making tattoo needles is the thin spring found in retractable click pens. The spring is removed, meticulously straightened, cut to the desired length, and refined.
However, the more favored yet difficult method to make a tattoo needle is from a guitar ‘G’ metal string. Like the pen’s spring, the metal string is removed, straightened, cut, and sharpened. These are available only in prisons that provide musical instruments.
Sharpening the tattoo needle:
Now this involves some basic science – electrolysis.
- Fill a pill bottle or cup with salt and water.
- Connect the needle to the positive end of a power source, such as a battery or an AC/DC adaptor using a piece of wire.
- Connect another wire to the negative end of the power source and place it in the saltwater.
- The positively charged needle’s end will quickly turn black. It is wiped clean, and the process is repeated a few times to make the needle sharper.
3. Motorized Tattoo Device
Now that you’ve made your prison ink and reliable tattoo needle, let’s come to the topic at hand: the motorized tattoo device or tattoo machine.
A basic prison tattoo gun has three main parts:
- A motor that supplies power to the needle for its high-speed up-and-down vibrations
- A barrel which holds and centers the needle and is usually made using a pen barrel
- A mount that holds the barren beneath the motor and is generally made from a toothbrush
Toothbrushes and pens are sold and easily available at almost every prison’s commissary. They are very cheap and considered disposable.
But the motor should be small enough to fit into the tattoo gun easily. You might be surprised, but you can quickly get your hands on small motors in prison through various sources.
For instance, inmates are sometimes permitted to buy personal tape-recorders or radios, and their motors are the perfect fit for a prison tattoo gun. Some prisons also allow inmates to purchase their beard trimmers and their motors are the most widely used for tattoo guns. Other reliable sources include typewriter motors (these are available in prisons for typing legal documents) and motors of small fans.
Your motor might already have a spindle. It is an off-center piece located on the moving wheel, which, on spinning, rapidly rotates whatever is connected to it. If you don’t have a spindle, you can easily make one by soldering or gluing a small paper clip just off the center of the rotating region of the motor.
Assembling the Prison Tattoo Gun
And with that, you now have everything you need to assemble a workable prison tattoo gun!
Here is what you need to do:
- Remove the pen’s ink-tube, leaving behind only the ball-tip.
- Using nail-clippers, cut the ‘ball’ off the ball-tip to create a small hole, almost the size of your needle (tip: If you’re using a toothbrush, you may have to melt the brush’s head to make a 90-degree angle)
- Cut the barrel using scissors or nail clippers. The length of the barrel must be slightly longer than your needle.
- Attach the barrel to the mount and secure it using rubber bands or zip-ties to secure laundry bags.
- Attach the motor to the top of the mount, and secure it with rubber bands or zip-ties.
- Thread the needle into the hole in the barrel and wrap the other end around the spindle. This way, when the motor spins, the end of the needle rotates but remains centered by the barrel to produce a largely up-and-down movement with each spin.
Check the video to know more about making a prison tattoo gun.
Some Prison Tattoo Ideas
And that’s how you make a prison tattoo gun. Dip the needle in ink and allow the motor to rapidly move it up and down into the skin several times per second. Gradually move your tattoo machine as the needle pierces the skin, creating your desired pattern and inking you or a fellow inmate forever. Some issues to look out for are how deep the needle penetrates the skin, what techniques you use to achieve shadings and other tattoo components, and most importantly, how you maintain hygiene.