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One thing that I truly love about tattoos is their ability to be so many different things to so many people. I don’t mean that everyone’s tattoo has its own particular meaning, I mean that due to a variety of styles, a tattoo can be as shiny and as bold and clean as you want it, but then on the opposite end of the scale, there are things like prison tattoos that are done for entirely different reasons than the average tattoo. Prison tattoos can mark a person’s lineage or history in this world in a way that no other tattoo can. It can be violent, it can be dark, it can even be happy, but the thing about prison tattoos is that they are true and rough and they definitely aren’t a fashion statement of any sort.
Looking through Cape Town photographer Araminta de Clarmont’s photo series on South African prison tattoos, I am struck first and foremost by the sheer presence of her subjects. These are men who have spent years in prison and their tattooed bodies – often nothing more than handwritten scrawlings in faded blue “ink” – are maps of truth and pain, ones which leave as many questions as they answer. These aren’t beautiful works of art – far from it – but they elicit an impact that any great work of art should. Surprisingly enough, these amateur and illegal (in the South African prison system) tattoos have a lot of heart even if they are a million miles away from the likes of the professional tattoo work that fills magazines and the internet.
These are well worth a look as well as a bit of a wonder at the lives of the men who wear them. Araminta de Clarmont’s photo study Life After, can be viewed here.