CHINO, Calif. -- It's difficult to trace the origins of tattoos and similar body art -- which Western societies often regard as a form of mutilation -- primarily because tattoos transcend culture and geography. Tattooing has been a practice since the Neolithic times, and today it's not uncommon to see men and women of all ages displaying their "ink."
But tattoos have not always enjoyed a reputation as artistic or positive expressions of self identity. Since the late eighteenth century, tattoos in Western societies have come to symbolize a criminal element.
The Australian penal colonies that existed between 1787 and 1867 are the most probable origins of the practice of criminal tattooing. Prisoners who were transported from Britain to Australia were sometimes branded with marks to signify disgrace. The letter "D," for example, indicated that the prisoner was a military deserter. The letter "A" on a woman meant that she was a whore. However, the prisoners often modified these tattoos to conceal the original design. Since then, tattoos have been used among criminals to show gang membership, document the wearer's personal history and serve as a means of personal expression.
Prisoners today engage in unusually extreme forms of self mutilation and skin art. Just last month, the media began reporting on the emerging fad of prisoners injecting ink into the whites of their eyes. Ophthalmologists claim the procedure is "absolutely irreversible" and about as "innovative as chopping off your balls so you can get a job as a eunuch."
Herb Bickle, a serial zoophile serving 25 to life in San Bernardino's California Institution for Men, aka Chino, explained his fixation. "You know, for me it started with tattooing the face. That's like the gateway drug. Then I got the tongue split for my lady when she comes on trailer day [conjugal visitation]. A year later, I sewed my butt cheeks together, but that was for practical reasons too. Now it's like I wake up and say, 'I want to inject my eyeballs.'" And he did.
Disturbing as tattooing one's eyeballs might seem, a splinter group of masochists and body art enthusiasts have stumbled on something even worse. Experts say it's the most brutal and painful form of body art to date. The inmates call it "Picasso."
A combination of cosmetic surgery and a good ass kicking, Picasso is gaining traction because it's easier to administer than tattoos or piercings. The premise is simple.
One prisoner, the "canvas," is "primed." Priming the canvas involves little more than restraining the recipient in a chair, usually with belts or knotted sheets. The second prisoner, the "artist," then beats the holy hell out of the first prisoner until all his facial features have been distorted, rearranged or relocated. The desired end state is a face that resembles a cubist monstrosity -- something so abstract and deformed that Guernica would look like a Disney poster beside it.
When asked if he was concerned about Picasso, the warden replied, "No, not really. Most of these guys are pot heads, here on three strikes. Seriously, they should be at home baked, having a good time. They won't ever get caught up in stuff like that. But the rest of these people, they're bad news. Look at Bickle over there. Guy screws horses, kills hookers, sews all that BeDazzler crap onto his junk, the list goes on and on. I heard he ate a baby. No shit, just ate a baby. Do I care if these guys beat a bucket of turds outta each other? Nope. Couldn't give two shits, to be honest."