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Body art on Florida prison inmates runs from freaky to kinky

Carl Vines, serving 10 years at the Avon Park Correctional Institution in Central Florida, tattooed the inside of his lip with the word "dope."

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Tavares Young, who has been in and out of prison since 1992, replaced his eyebrows with permanently manicured ink.

Richard Ward, who has racked up 18 theft-related convictions since 1987, covered his male appendage in candy cane stripes.

In an era when tattoos are growing more popular, especially among the young, prison continues to be a place where people of all ages flash their colors — and inner psyches — on all surfaces of the skin.

Three of four Florida inmates have at least one tattoo, a Palm Beach Post analysis of prison records shows. That’s more than 380,000 tattoos on nearly 75,000 state inmates, making body art about as typical as freckles or birthmarks.

Those numbers don’t shock Michael "Pooch" Pucciarelli, a tattoo artist and owner of Altered State Tattoo in Lake Worth, Florida.

"I think what surprises me more is that people still don’t see me and think I’m a felon," said Pooch, whose arms and legs are swirling with colorful figures.

The state of Florida painstakingly logs every tattoo and its location, creating a telling record of an oft-overlooked population.

The single most common tattoo in Florida prisons is the cross, worn by more than 22,000 inmates. Another popular tattoo: skulls, at 15,000.

Pooch could have guessed — skulls and crosses are among the most common tattoo requests he gets from his clientele, whom he described as regular people, not the bikers and sailors once typically associated with tattoos.

The most likely location for a tattoo for a Florida prisoner? The arms, by far, though the right arm has a slight edge over the left.

That’s not to say tattoos can’t be found on any other body part, as Ward’s candy cane-adorned nether region attests.

And not all ink is of the "thug life" variety.

For instance, Billy Jones, a 46-year-old Hypoluxo man, sports a peace sign on his back. He’s one of 336 inmates in Florida prisons to adorn their bodies with the symbol, a tattoo often in conflict with the crimes they committed.

Jones' crime? He’s serving 6½ years for stabbing his neighbor.

Tattoos don’t seem to just conflict with the wearer’s crimes, but also the wearers other ink.

Fifty-nine inmates sport "Hello Kitty" tattoos — 15 of them men.

Vines, imprisoned on a drug charge, is among the men tattooed with the girlish Japanese cartoon character. His resides on his leg, accompanied by the words “I love you.”

But Vines is not all sugar and spice and everything nice. On his neck is a tattoo that spells "murda," state records show, though he has never been convicted of taking a life.

Not like Wes McGee, a murderer who sports an unnerving tattoo popular among Florida inmates.

When police booked McGee into jail 10 years ago for the slaying of a West Palm Beach grandmother and the attempted murder of her then-6-year-old grandson, McGee's face hadn’t yet been scarred with ink.

Since then two teardrops have been etched into the skin beneath his left eye — tattoos commonly worn by murderers to tally their dead.

His choice of facial art is not unique in Florida prisons. Nearly 3,200 inmates have teardrop tattoos on their cheeks. About 270 of them are in for murder charges.

Another is Robert Alvarez, who tattooed his face with nine symbols including teardrops and a cross, which he got while he was in prison between the time of his initial conviction in 2012 and the appellate ruling that won him a second trial stemming from the 2010 murders of two store clerks.

The judge in Alvarez's second trial allowed him to cover his facial ink with makeup. The Post reported at the time that jurors noticed the makeup job, though they said it didn't impact their decision.

"I could see that he had something (under the makeup) but I couldn’t tell what it was," one female juror told the Post after her peers couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict and the judge declared a mistrial. "I thought he’d gotten in a fight or something and they were trying to cover up the bruises."

In yet another trial, a made-up Alvarez lost. He’s serving three concurrent life sentences.

The tattoos selected by women, who make up about 7 percent of the state’s 99,600 inmates, often vary wildly from men. The most common tattoos among women prisoners are butterflies, hearts, roses and flowers.

Emerald Smith, for example, at the all-female Gadsden Correctional Facility in Quincy, has a heart on her hand in addition to a number of more uncommon tattoos, like the fairy on the top of her foot.

Or the tattoo of a stick figure pushing a lawn mower, the placement of which seemed critical. The Department of Corrections lists its location only as "pelvis."

Smith also has a tattoo of the logo for gun maker Browning Arms on her right arm, perhaps a tip-off to her reason for landing in the slammer: armed robbery.

While the Department of Corrections logs every inmate's tattoos, turning those records into absolute numbers is a daunting task. The state’s notations are often vague, misspelled or describe multiple tattoos as one.

That means the number of tattoos worn by inmates in Florida prisons is likely higher than the 380,000 tattoos counted by the Post.

It’s also difficult to pinpoint gang affiliation through tattoo records. The state recognizes more than 1,000 gangs. The Post found more than 8,000 tattoos in Florida prisons that explicitly reference those gangs.

The most prevalent gang, according to the state, is the Aryan Brotherhood. Its members often mark themselves with swastikas, accounting for about 580 of the tattoos on the inmate list.

The Department of Corrections also lists Neta, a Puerto Rico-based prison gang, as one of the more prolific prison gangs, though members often remain secretive about their allegiance. That might explain why only about 100 tattoos evoke the group’s symbols.

Tattoos that broadly include the words "gang," "gangster" or "gangsta" are much more common, with more than 660 of them.

Other popular gang tattoos include references to the Blood and Crip gangs as well as the phrase "thug life."

Pooch, who has been inking tattoos for 22 years, said he has encountered a Nazi-affiliated tattoo once before. On a Jewish felon.

The man joined a white gang for protection while he was in prison. He got the tattoo so he could blend in, but when he got out, the man wanted the tattoo gone, Pooch said.

"I covered it up with an Asian mask. Japanese-style," Pooch said. "I do those a lot."

 

 

 

 


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