The Underworld



The System

Famous Crime





Tattooed torso of a prisoner at Nimes. From Perrier, Les Criminals.

Tattooing provided for a social identification of inmates within prisons. Much like men in the armed forces of France, or female prostitutes, the criminals of France formed a type of community. Since prisoners no longer belonged to the society as a whole they needed to form their own society, and their group identification was often tattoos. In some cases these marks were marks of deviance, status, or distinction within the group. Depending on the actual image depicted in the tattoo, much was conveyed through these "talking scars" (O'Brien).

Some of the most popular tattoos seen in French prisons were, in order of most popular...

  • Erotic and sexual images
  • Metaphoric symbols
  • Military figures
  • Inscriptions
  • Professional or occupational symbols
  • Patriotic or religious symbols


As can be seen on the torso of the man above, many things are being expressed through his body art. There is a metal on his upper chest, and an anchor on his lower left arm, symbols perhaps of past occupations. There are numerous images of women, a sign of sexual power, and there are even inscriptions reading "Vive Le Classe 18..." showing that he is most likely an educated man.

Being in the controlled environment of a prison, the body of the inmate was one of the only things he had control over. Therefore, tattooing was a self-imposed identification, and even a form of self impowerment.

The types of tattoos varied from person to person, but more distinctivly between the two sexes. For the most part, men in prisons used tattoos as symbols of power, deviance, sex, protest, or even a longing to be free (for example the flying bird on the above man's lower left arm). On the other hand, women's tattoos often conveyed messages of romance and/or motherhood as compared to some of the violent images males used.