Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

"You Can't Take My Face": A Personal Narrative of Self–modification through Tattooing in the Aotearoa/New Zealand Prison System

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

"You Can't Take My Face": A Personal Narrative of Self–modification through Tattooing in the Aotearoa/New Zealand Prison System

Article excerpt


The following narrative draws on the life of Stan Coster, a Maori man who affiliated with a gang for many years and who has spent more than 25 of his 57 years directly under the 'eye of power' of the supervisory and panoptical regime of the Aotearoa/New Zealand prison system. Over nine of the 25 years were spent in prison-imposed isolation.

This article is underpinned by the notion that state-administered imprisonment becomes a fertile locus of creative resistance and empowerment, made manifest in this case by illegal prison tattooing, the results of which are extremely visible. Such a practice has invested Stan's body with particular and specific values. Tattooing, done illegally or otherwise, helps define the social and cultural body in which ethnicity, class, gender and status are symbolically referenced. The creation of tattoos and the wearing of them mark Stan as a member of specific groups - prisoner, gang member - who exist on the fringes of society. These conspicuous tattoos not only convey to the world at large the social and cultural position which his body occupies but they also inform his psyche as well. His body, while his property, is also the property of the prison and its management: such illegal activities, undertaken over sustained periods, are a threat to the jails' panoptical and proprietorial authority and thus to its rehabilitative functioning.

Stan's life is complex and has been writ by state institutions and their many forms of confinement. His intimate and insider perspectives of foster homes, boy's homes, borstals and prisons are central to the following discussion, which emphasises the emergence of tattooing as a process in the formation of the cultural body, in which specific social boundaries are created and reinforced, both visibly and mentally. Stan is not a research participant but a full research collaborator and is engaged in all elements of this paper, including its broad vision, so he is both auteur and author. Through his insider-voice, he sees his engagement in such work alongside (state-funded) university-based researchers as part of his talking back to the state. Guiding Stan's voice is the nascent school of thought known as 'convict criminology' in which everyday lived experiences of crime and punishment are at the forefront. Such inside knowledge is embedded in ethnographic narratives of authenticity and the subjective phenomenological experiences of those on the margins (Richards & Ross, 2001). Stan shares his insights, which have been produced under conditions of severe deprivation and constraint, in the hope that the benefit may accrue to the collective (Andrae, McIntosh & Coster, 2017).

Stan has an association with one of his co-authors that goes back to the 1980s while his collaborative working relationship with his other coauthor has been active for the last five years. The collaborative research relationship goes beyond the simple insider/outsider research dynamic by looking at the way that power is exercised and articulated in such research collaborations and the way it informs the research process. In speaking about power, Stan recognises that marginality has been a feature of every aspect of his life: he was marginal in whänau [family] settings; in children's homes; in his gang life; in prison; and in life outside the wire. The cumulative effects of marginalisation render Stan as the marginal man. While this is Stan's unique individual story, it is also the voice of the collective. Elizabeth Stanley's (2016) powerful work on the experiences of children held in state institutions in Aotearoa/New Zealand demonstrates the pervasiveness of state institutions' 'care to custody (and confinement)' transition.

Through the use of the Official Information Act (1982), Stan recovered state documentation on himself spanning over 40 years. This documentation includes reports from social welfare officers when he was a child, official letters to foster families and other state placements and school reports. …

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