Les Tatouages du Milieu
Tattooing became self-imposed identification a long time ago, even a form of empowerment; but a normal tattoo hardly carries the weight and symbolic power as those of convicts tattooed in prison. Contributing to the creation and maintenance of group identity behind bars during the first part of the 19th century, these were marks of deviance, status or distinction within groups. This eventually led to a mesmerising anthropological study commissioned by Edmond Locard, founder of the first scientific police research laboratory in Lyon, to identify connections between convicts.
The report unfolded quite complex code systems and because of the nature of what they encode, the designs of prison tattoos were not widely recognized as such to outsiders. In the conditions of a prison, being subject to periods of isolation, separation and grief, tattoos also helped to remind of history and core values. Other tattoos were very specific about the wearer’s rank, affiliations, criminal accomplishments or punishments. Well known is the three dots tattoo, which can appear under the eye or on the hand and stood for ‚mort aux vaches, or ‚death to the cows‘ - cows meaning the police. A single dot on the cheek however revealed the wearer to be a pimp (point des maquereaux). Other images like spider webs, usually located on the elbow, represented the length of sentences. Many convicts also had mottos tattooed in large letters across their chests or backs and included ‚Kill the Pigs‘, ‚Death to the French Officers‘, ‚Vengeance’ or ‚The Whole of France is not worth a pile of shit’. In 1950, those dictionary-like documents alongside stunning photos and drawings of tattoos were compiled and finally made public with the release of the (now gone) book Les Tatouages du ‚Milieu’ by police inspector Jacques Delarue and journalist Robert Giraud. Most recently, Paris’ own Galerie Frédéric Moisan brought this collection back to life by presenting a selection of forty prints from the Delarue collection, as well as the original drawings from this publication.
text: Chris rambow
all Images: Granversannes / Police Laboratory, Lyon.
Argentic print. Between 1920s and 1940s. Jacques Delarue’s Collection