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Philippines Tattoo Inmates

Photographer: Dennis M. Sabangan


New Bilibid Prison, the Philippines' state penitentiary, houses convicted felons serving from three years to several decades for crimes like murder, kidnapping, rape, and robbery. With the excess occupancy at almost 200 per cent, the colony has transformed into a community with a bustling economic activity. Markets sell fresh meat, fish, and vegetables that are grown inside the compound. Different types of businesses have sprouted up, including a barbershop, a shoe-repair shop, and even a basket-weaving factory.


Gang culture prevails inside the facility. There are 12 groups operating inside, the biggest ones being Sputnik, Sigue-Sigue Commando, and Batang City Jail. The gangs have their own rules and leaders and help the authorities maintain the peace within Bilibid. Most inmates describe their gangs as ‘families’ that provide protection, company, and much-needed supplies.


Upon joining a gang, a man must be tattooed with the group’s symbol. Tattooing is considered to be contraband but inmates have learned to improvise. One way to create tattoo paraphernalia is to stick 12 needles into a piece of wood and secure them using a rubber band or candle wax. Others build machines by using cellular phone chargers or batteries connected by wires to pens. When ink cannot be smuggled in, they use powdered charcoal mixed with oil. One prisoner even claims that he once used squid ink on a tattoo.


A tattoo costs next to nothing in Bilibid. A big chest piece won’t cost more than five dollars. Some convicts even make a cottage industry of having others’ names or portraits tattooed on their bodies for money. They call this ‘diskarteng bilibid,’ the fight for survival inside. However, the distinct look of jail tattoos can cause big problems when an inmate finally gets released. Aside from being socially rejected as a former convict, he can also become a target for rival gangs outside. Many former inmates have met the same unfortunate fate upon being released to free society. Still, many take no heed at the warnings and continue tattooing away in hidden corners of Bilibid.