Paintings Of DIY Tattoo Rigs By Prison Inmates

An L.A. exhibition shows how a Brooklyn-based tattoo artist set up shop with Mexican inmates, built new tattoo rigs, and documented the results in photo-accurate paintings.

I just wanted to fall in love with tattooing again,” says Scott Campbell, tattooist and owner of Brooklyn’s Saved Tattoo, whose exhibition, Things Get Better, is featured at L.A.’s OhWow Gallery. “Tattooing is something that I’ve loved my whole life, but in the past few years, it has been hijacked by reality TlV and mall culture,” he tells Co.Design.


Finding originality in tattoo culture isn’t easy. For every book on game-changing tattoo artists (Campbell’s work is in there) or Tattly, there are a whole lot of “cheeseball reality shows” about tattoos.

Campbell traveled to Mexico two years ago to photograph inmate tattoos. In an environment with strictly enforced orange uniforms and haircuts, tattoos become a “last ditch effort to claim any sort of individuality or humanity,” Campbell says.

Many prisoners were tattooed with the names of loved ones. Some inmates would even risk a month of solitary confinement for new ink. And once Campbell arrived, many inmates just wanted his artistry on their skin. Without a tattoo parlor on site, inmates were used to scraping together tools from the detritus of leftover supplies. Campbell stumbled upon Franken-machines assembled from razors, toothbrushes, guitar strings, and the like.

Inspired by their ingenuity, Campbell himself adopted those trademark design principles of working within limitations and a DIY mentality. He started donating VCRs, cassette players, and guitars to the prison’s recreation center. Then he’d dismantle everything on his next visit to build new rigs and set up shop with inmates. To avoid any risk of cross-contamination, he built a new contraption for each prisoner. “Because you make one for each person, each is a really personalized object,” he says. “Soon I was building the machines as compositions, incorporating different materials or repeated parts to create a motif.”

Campbell has now rendered the machines into a series of black ink paintings done with photography-like accuracy in the vein of Chuck Close. Things Get Better documents a surprising way to consider designing within limits. Tattoos can only go where the body goes, and the machines can only exist from what’s laying around. But as it turns out, those barriers inspire creativity.

Things Get Better is on display at OhWow Gallery in Los Angeles until June 22.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.