08 December 2011

How to Build a Boob Gun... & Why You Shouldn't

Some of the most popular objects in the Boggo Road Gaol Museum collection were the 1980s prisoner-made tattoo machines, or 'boob guns' in jail slang. These illegal items were not only testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of some inmates, they were also an artefact of resistance against the powers-that-be. Our tour guides had working models of these things that were always a big hit with visitors, and I once put together a display about these tattoo machines at the Anthropology Museum at the University of Queensland. The sight of passing uni students stopping to take notes is always a good indicator of interest!

Tattoo machine from the Boggo Road museum collection (BRGHS).
Tattoo machine from the Boggo Road museum collection (BRGHS).

Tattoo machines like this were an illegal item in prison, not only because prisoners were required to maintain the same appearance during their sentence, but also because they could be used as weapons. Another important reason for restricting their use in more recent years has been to minimise the spread of communicable diseases such as hepatitis C by sharing needles. However, none of this stopped inmates from getting tattoos, and there were over 100 tattooing items in the Boggo Road collection, including both complete and incomplete machines and components, showing that tattooing was a widespread practice within the Queensland prison system.

These machines could be cobbled together using bits and pieces found around a 1980s prison. The diagram below shows what the components were, and the table below this shows where these bits and pieces came from:
Parts of a tattoo machine, Boggo Road Gaol
Image: C. Dawson
Probable source
Drive rod and barrel
Issued for hobby work, etc, in cells
Needle and connecting pin
Needle or pin
Sewing needles and pins from industry workshops
Wire (later sharpened) from workshops, or paper clips issued as stationery
Diabetic needles from the prison hospital surgery
Mathematical compass, issued for hobby work
Guitar string
Prison issue
Connecting pin
Prison issue
Prison clothing
Extracted from audio cassette players or radios (allowed in cells)
Electrical wiring
Same as above
Tattoo ink
India ink
Issued for hobby work in cells
Ground from spent matches, mixed with oil
Pen ink
Obtained from split tube of pen and mixed with margarine
Binding for frame and components
Cotton thread
Prison clothing or workshops
Adhesive tape
Industry workshops
Industry workshops

Ink was applied to the skin prior to puncturing with the needle, although sometimes a mix of ground charcoal and water was used. Professional tattoo shops use special inks that do not irritate the skin and are unlikely to cause allergic reactions. Makeshift inks used in prison tattoos may be unsafe and damage the skin, causing permanent scarring. They can also contain dangerous chemicals.

This is how the machine worked:
How a tattoo machine works, Boggo Road Gaol
Image: C. Dawson

Apart from the obvious risk that an inmate could leave prison with some bloody awful tattoos, there are SERIOUS health risks involved with prison tattoos, as sterilising the makeshift equipment is difficult or impossible. Apart from basic skin infections, deadly diseases like hepatitis and HIV/AIDS can be passed from one prisoner to another when needles are re-used. The playing card on the left below is from a deck issued to prisoners, while the poster to the right was also used in Queensland prisons.

Anti-HIV promo materialAnti-HIV promo material, Queensland

So all-in-all, brilliantly clever devices but potentially fatal to use. So don't.

Bad tattoo
Did I mention the bad tattoos?
More about tattoo machines and other prisoner-made illegal devices and objects can be found in the book Shivs, Bongs & Boob Guns: Made in a Queensland prison cell.

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