Dead Prisoners' Tattoos Preserved in Formaldehyde

  • Preserved Prison Tattoo

    These days the number of people who have elected to be poked repeatedly with a needle to form an image on their skin is quite high. It’s commonplace to walk around town and see tattoos on people, whether it be on their arms, legs or torso. The reasons that people decide to get a tattoo is as varied as the people who have them. While it is now generally accepted as a part of our culture, it wasn’t very long ago that tattoos were the domain of only very specific groups of people.

  • Prisoners in jails around the world have been tattooing themselves for a very long time, and for ages the designs were much simpler than the artwork seen on people today. Instead of the needle that we’re all familiar with these days, prisoners would use crude implements to create the designs on their skin. The skin would be punctured using things like razor blades, broken glass, paper clips or wires. Instead of ink being used to create colour, pencil refils, charcoal, water colour paints or crayons would be mixed with water, fat or urine. Due to the chemicals used, along with the unsanitary instruments used, the health risk of getting a tattoo was significantly greater than under today’s conditions.

  • Around the beginning of the 20th century, in Krakow, Poland, at the Department of Forensic Medicine at Jagiellonian University, a study of the prisoners’ tattoos began. While pictures could have perhaps been taken of the tattoos for further study, this was not the method that was employed. Instead, after prisoners had died, their tattooed skin was removed and preserved in formaldehyde.

  • What was determined by the study was that along with the criminal group the person associated with, their character traits, place of residence or past could be determined by the design.

  • The study also found that the sorts of people getting tattoos in prison were those associated with crimes like burglary, rape or prostitution.

  • Another study was conducted over a four year period in the ’70s, in which 2300 tattoos were analyzed from around Europe. The study was able to ‘crack the code’ of prison tattoos, determining a lot about the owner of each tattoo.

  • I want to say a big thank you to Katarzyna Mirczak for providing the information as well as all of the pictures for this article. 

Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History