Forensic tattoos

Posted on May 6, 2010


Some time ago I found myself on a site about Russian prison tattoos (it seems to have gone now but there’s a cut-down version here). The piece was based on the studies of a prison guard and ethnographer who’d documented them over a lifetime’s career, and it was absolutely fascinating.

The work was often very artfully done, despite using ink made from a compound of urine, soot and boiled down tractors or something, and it was very striking in its effect. What I found most interesting about it was that there was a whole world of symbols and meaning within this grim, hopeless setting.

For example, pictures of cathedrals and fortresses often feature, with the number of spires representing the number of years in the prisoner’s sentence, or the number of sentences he’d served to date. A twist of barbed wire on a forehead shows that the bearer is serving a life sentence with no parole, and a dagger going across the shoulder blades is a forcibly-inflicted indicator of a sex offender. Then there’s the text – gloriously Russian stuff straight from Tarkovsky like “My mother taught me to steal in the industrial zones” and “I don’t care about the Soviet laws–the only rules I follow are the ones I make up in my head. Many of the people sitting in here have no destiny, but I am not one of those.

It makes a blurred swallow and ‘ACAB’ look a bit half-arsed, doesn’t it? The site I’ve linked to is only a tiny taster – there are three volumes of Baldev’s work. Whatever, it’s a fascinating insight into a world that you very much hope you’ll never see first hand (one of my rules in life is to never get locked up in a country that uses a different alphabet to yours).

So…you know what’s coming now, don’t you? Yup, I’m suggesting that we develop a language for computer forensic tattoos. Carl Zimmer has got his Science Tattoo Emporium – and an entertaining site it is too – but it’s not specific enough. We’re a subculture within several weird little niches like law enforcement, computer security, general geekery, computer science et cetera, and we deserve a body-modification lexicon of our own, dammit! Here are my suggestions:

  • A USB hub, containing a dongle for every year you’ve been in the CF biz. Remember to get the hub done with room to daisychain others off it – some of us still have miles to go before we sleep.
  • A tortured Saint Sebastian, with an arrow for every time you’ve been cross-examined in court.
  • An egg timer, with a grain of sand for each hour you’ve wasted sitting around in court. Possibly with a skull wearing a barrister’s wig, as a memento mori.
  • An open book, laid flat with the page-side down. This symbolises a reminder that you should always bookmark a finding as soon as you see it, because there’s always one that you’ll never find again.
  • A face with the mouth filled by a massive tangle of Alphabetti Spaghetti. Indicates that the wearer is capable of understanding youths’ MSN chat.
  • Text: “I learned NTFS forensics using the MFT record of a cheerleader photo
  • A horse carrying scales of justice over its back. This is a punishment tattoo, inflicted on a defence practitioner who has attempted a spurious trojan defence.
  • An owl – shows that the wearer has at some point been appointed ‘expert’ status by a judge during a trial.
  • A profile of Gary Glitter, demonstrating that the wearer has been involved in a celebrity prosecution.
  • A painted harlot – this is a punishment tattoo for someone guilty of being an overtime whore. If the harlot is holding a weasel, this indicates that the person also tried to wriggle out of it.
  • A biscuit being shoved up a bottom – another punishment tattoo, showing that the bearer has put digestives in the biscuit tin.

That’s all I can think of for now. I’d have drawn some examples but, as I’ve mentioned previously, my drawing skills are teh suck. Feel free to send any drawings of your own to or comment-me-up below.

I expect to see a tattooing stand at the next F3, and a lot of ink on display in the bar.

Posted in: Forensics