A marked man

So much of one’s discretionary income is designated towards personal presentation, how one looks, dresses, behaves. One’s likes and dislikes, values, beliefs and affiliations may be expressed in one’s individual presentation. To friends. Family. Lovers. There’s your hair cut and facial grooming. there’s your body weight and physique. Your hands and fingernails. Clothing. Jewelry and other wearables. Posture. Your odor. Oral language and written communications too. So many choices, so many options for different occasions, events and experiences. Most of these elements are transient while others like skin and eye color, a birthmark and height are features you are born with.

How we present ourselves is another way to talk about our identity. It was impressed upon me at an early age that how I presented myself or was “packaged” influenced interpersonal relations, how I was perceived and my success in the world.

As an independent information researcher I would work with different databases and directories. It is the concept of ”identity” that explains one of my favorite databases: a biometric tattoo database used in law enforcement and criminal proceedings. (Note: I have never used it; I have only read about it and its applications.)

First started by the FBI, it originally contained tens of thousands of images of prisoner tattoos. It has expanded beyond prisoner mug shots and now includes tattoos from all kinds of people: criminal suspects, victims of abuse, murderers, rapists, gang members and other criminal types. It’s a collection of symbols, designs, acronyms, faces, drawings. The tattoos are signs of a person’s identity, rank and status. The tattoos make a statement of one’s affiliations, associations, aspirations, as well as evidence of loved ones and symbols of religious and spiritual devotion.

I think I first became interested by visual search and recognition technology one summer while visting the FBI Forensic Science Lab in Washington DC with my family. We didn’t see the tattoo database but we did see the paint chip database along with extensive shoe footprint and tire tread databases. With the motor vehicle database paint chips were cross referenced to car and truck vehicles, makes, models and years. A vehicular accident like a hit and run that scrapes off a little paint can help investigstors narrow down the vehicle type from the accident. If there’s a good tire tread captured that too can be used. Then the motor vehicle registration-specific database (that only licensed private investigators, insurance personnel and police have access) can be utilized in an attempt to tie an individual to a crime scene. How cool is that?

Tattoo recognition technology uses algorithms to accelerate tattoo recognition and identification of suspects, prisoners and criminals as well as victims of abuse. Anil Jain, a computer science and engineering professor at Michigan State University in 2009 is credited with developing Tattoo-ID, a forerunner to the FBI database using a grant from the FBI.

Originally the tattoo database was used strictly by medical examiners to identify suspected gang members (with particular use when these suspected gang members were dismembered beyond recognition or killed in some other gruesome way) by usual identification means. But use has skyrocketed since an estimated 30% or more of law-abiding Americans now have at least one tattoo. A 2006 poll found 40% of Americans ages 26-40 had at least one tattoo.

Today use goes beyond identifying dismembered corpses. Tattoos are a good way to identify victims of crime or when natural disasters occur (likely to increase in need as more violent disasters occur more often and more innocents drown or are swept away etc. ) The U.S. State Dept has used tattoos to ID certain people and deny Visas. While DNA testing along with facial recognition gets all the attention, tattoos are skin markings using inks, dyes and pigments which are telltale signs as well. They are often very individualized like a scar or birth mark.

There is a ”tattoo language” or multiple tattoo languages. Gangs each have their identifying specific designs, images, symbols that silently communicate certain meanings. Rank and type of crimes committed are expressed in tattoos exhibited or worn. Sometimes tattoos are given out as punishments and reserved for particular parts of the body. Polling indicates that a lot of Americans wear tattoos to express gratitude about a significant event or to commemorate another person or event or experience.

Aaron Hernandez, the former star New England Patriots’ tight end who killed himself in prison had tattoos all over his chest, back, neck, arms and fingers including a five pointed star on his neck, a symbol of the violent gang, the Bloods. Some of Aaron’s tattoos were used as evidence in court that contributed to his conviction by the prosecution to prove he killed Odin Lloyd in 2013. Hernandez was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Whatever happens in one’s life a tattoo is available to express it. But if one decides on receiving a tattoo it is bound to the body which is in a constant state of change and movement. Some believe its an art form and for some others a means of expression or both. Is it a way to wear one’s heart on its sleeve (for all to see?) or to protect oneself from harm or something else? I’m less interested in the origin and more interested in the messaging or branding done that tips investigators, writers or researchers to more fully understand the individual.

Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

One thought on “A marked man

  1. Great piece..one of your best yet.
    One other gruesome aspect is tattoos imposed on prisoners— think Nazi Germany and concentration camps.
    I’ve seen tattoos that sports fans choose, as a sign of team loyalty.
    The criminal and forensic aspects are fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

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