‘“Indelible characters”:Tattoos, Power and the Late Nineteenth-Century Irish Convict Body

Ciara Breathnach, Elaine Farrell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Since the late nineteenth-century works of criminologists Lombroso and Lacassagne, tattoos in Europe have been commonly associated with deviant bodies. Like many other studies of tattoos of non-indigenous origin, the locus of our research is the convict body. Given the corporeal emphasis of prison records, we argue that tattoos form a crucial part of the power dynamic. Tattoos in the carceral context embody an inherent paradox of their being a component in the reidentification of 'habitual criminals'. We argue that their presence can be regarded as an expression of convict agency: by the act of imprinting unique identifiers on their bodies, convicts boldly defied the official gaze, while equally their description in official records exacted power over the deviant body. Cursory findings show an alignment with other national studies; corporeal inscriptions in Ireland were more prevalent in men's prisons than women's and associated, however loosely, with certain occupations. For instance, maritime and military motifs find representation. Recidivists were more likely to have tattoos than first-time offenders; inscriptions were described as monotone, rudimentary in design and incorporated a limited range of impressions. Further to our argument that tattoos form an expression of convict defiance of prison authority, we have found an unusual idiosyncrasy in the convict record, that is, that the agency of photography, while undermined in general terms, was manipulated by prison officers.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)235-254
Number of pages20
Journalcultural and social history
Issue number2
Early online date07 May 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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