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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tattoos: Human License Plates Identifying Criminals and Victims

     A mother in Georgia recently got into trouble for taking her 10-year-old son to a tattoo shop where he got tattooed in honor of his dead brother. The local prosecutor's office charged the woman with child cruelty. Under Georgia law, only physicians and osteopaths can tattoo people under 18. (Why would a doctor ink a kid in the first place?) This story got me thinking about tattoos, and the role they play, and have played, in the identification of criminals and their victims.

     Not too long ago, people most likely to get a tattoo were enlisted military personnel, prison inmates, and members of street gangs. Truman Capote, the author of "In Cold Blood," once told a journalist that of the dozens of mass murderers and serial killers he had interviewed, all of them had tattoos. Today, that would surprise no one. In 2006, according to a Pew Research Center survey, more than 36 percent of people between the ages 18 and 40 have at least one tattoo. This percentage is probably much higher now. (It seems that 90 percent of college and professional football and basketball players are tattooed. And as a boxing fan, I have noticed that more and more prize fighters are heavily tattooed.)

     Tattoos, along with clothing, personal belongings, fingerprints, scars, moles, and teeth, are helpful in the identification of corpses that have been dumped in the water, in fields and in the woods. In 1935, two fishermen caught a shark off the coast of Sydney, Australia. They took the live fish to a local aquarium where it disgorged a human arm that had been severed by a knife. The arm also bore a distinctive tattoo that led to the identification of a murder victim named James Smith. Smith had been an ex-boxer with a history of crime. The case became known as the Shark Arm Murder.

     The police routinely ask crime victims and eyewitnesses if the suspect had any tattoos. Former prison inmates and members of street gangs assist law enforcement by identifying themselves as such through their inked, individualized body markings. In England in the late 1800s, before criminal identification bureaus adopted fingerprints, ID clerks took note of arrestees' tattoos and their locations, data classified and filed for future retrieval. Today, in California, the CALGANG database consists of a collection of gang tattoos. In Florida, a database has been recently created that features approxiamately 372,000 tattoos of people who have been arrested in that state.

     In 2010, Michigan State University licensed tattoo matching technology to Morpho Trak, the world's leading provider of biometric (eye, hand, signature, and voice ID) identification systems. Corrections and law enforcement officers use the tattoo database to identify criminal suspects and homicide victims.

     Dr. Nina Jablonski, head of the anthropology department at Penn State, says that "Tattoos are part of an ancient and universal tradition of human self-declaration and expression." In some cases, these tattoos express anti-social attitudes, and declare that their owners have histories of crime.

    

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