[part of the Haywood Street Marks & Memoire series]

Most folks start telling me about a tattoo and within minutes, we’ve peeled off onto the windy backroads of story-telling. Not Jeff. He stays very much on topic. And maybe that’s because tattoos are so much of his story.

He is covered–back, arms, belly, face, legs. All of his work was completed in prison. He had 22 years to get it done.

All the marks were made with homemade tattoo guns—used parts from old radios. The inks—they’re all from ballpoint pens, tubes of mascara and burnt baby oil. Each image took not only the makeshift gun wielding artist, but a lookout or two—able to throw warnings of approaching wardens.

“I put a lot of racial stuff on me…Swastikas…Aryan Brotherhood things. Everyone wants to talk about it. They always ask about the tear drops. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Is that because you’ve changed your mind on some things?” I ask.

“Yea. All that stuff is really just more about the company you keep in prison.”

I don’t know exactly why Jeff lived for over 20 years on the inside. He tells me three tear drops means three dead people. But that’s all. And that’s enough. It’s hot outside and it’s lunchtime and stories don’t need to get told all at once. Not before noon.

Jeff asks if we can be done and heads back into the church for a double serving of Ms. Mary’s spaghetti pie. I keep my perch on the picnic table for a few more minutes—thinking about Jeff, and concrete cells and the smuggling of art into the most dark and depleted places.

Most of all though, I think about an offhand comment Jeff made about his mom coming to visit him in prison—how she was upset about all his tattoos; upset until he showed her the “mom” tattoo. “She smiled. She liked that one.”

It’s humanizing—to think about a homeless man with an extensive criminal history, as someone’s son; to think about a mama looking into her boy’s eyes, loving him in the pesky way moms do, pushing past a thousand barricades of emotion to see what we all see in our children—the good, the gone awry and the overwhelming presence of God.


Photo: Ron Greenberg
Written by: Brook van der Linde