Jail is the worst place ever and if you go to prison for a long time your best bet is probably to join a gang. If you ever find yourself in a South African prison the three speeds of gangs are thusly organized: 26, 27 & 28. 26s are scammers and counterfeiters. 27s are “Manskap of blood” or murderers and violent criminals. 28s are sex offenders. On entrance into prison criminals network in relation to their offense. One of the main prison rituals is the decoration of the body with tattoos which enforce gang hierarchy and status. Tattooing is also the only means of self-expression. Convicts testify to crimes committed and communicate messages of blame, threat, regret, and tribute to loved ones. The gallows is a symbol that you were up against the death penalty. Walt Disney’s signature script is a font with special and top-secret significance. Tattooing is forbidden but the Numbers are dedicated to the ritual and make do with whatever they can get. They grind up old garbage bins for ink, they pull nails out of furniture for tattoo needles. You may be asking yourself how I know all this. I was not incarcerated in South Africa, rather I found out about Heather Parker Lewis’s investigative book God’s Gangsters. She looks into the Number’s history, customs, reigns of terror, and power which has been flourishing behind bars for over 100 years. The photographs of Araminta de Clermont and Mikhael Subotzky depict the decrepit fragility of released prisoners marked forever with self-given tattoos. Here’s the link to “God’s Gangsters”, unfortunately not not currently available on Amazon. And if you’re interested in prison tattoo culture, read our feature on Russian Prison Tattoos for a lengthy breakdown..

More photos from “God’s Gangsters” after the Jump…

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