Tattoos, Crime and the Truth

Mumbala Tomas Shandjemwene

The head of Namibia’s Correctional Services, commissioner general Raphael Hamunyela, was last year quoted in the media as saying visible tattoos did not reflect well on the service.

He further directed that the names of officers with tattoos be submitted to his office for record-keeping.

A ban on tattoos among prison officers was also announced, raising questions about the correlation between body art and ‘deviance’.

Tattoos have always been a form of self-expression and artistic representation. On the other hand, debate about the connection between tattoos and criminal behaviour persists.

As much as we don’t want to agree with the commissioner general’s sentiments, ink (tattoos) is also a subject of discussion among many scholars.


The prevalence of tattoos in the criminal world is undeniable.

Tattoos were once considered a means of punishment in countries such as China, Russia and Japan.

Visibly and permanently marking someone as a criminal on re-entry into society was employed to publicly identify and shame them.

This is why tattoos are associated with wrongdoing no matter the justification. This is reinforced by the fact that certain tattoos bear specific meanings within criminal subcultures.

For instance, teardrop tattoos are often associated with acts of violence, while spider web tattoos may signify time spent behind bars.

On the other hand, it is important to note that tattoos are also a form of personal expression, and have various meanings for different people.

Many get tattoos to mark important life events or to express their personal beliefs.

Tattoos have also become increasingly fashionable.

Therefore, it is unfair to assume criminal tendencies based solely on the presence of body art.

Furthermore, social and cultural factors may contribute to the prevalence of tattoos.


Individuals who grow up in disadvantaged communities, or have a history of involvement with the justice system, may be more likely to sport tattoos.

Importantly, however, that correlation does not equal causation.

We should not automatically assume a direct link between tattoos and crime.

Prohibiting tattoos among prison officers raises questions about what motivated this decision.

While maintaining a professional appearance is understandable and important within the correctional system, individuals with tattoos should not be stigmatised.

A fair and individual assessment of an officer’s character, qualifications and performance should be the determining factor for employment.

In conclusion, the connection between tattoos and crime is a complex and multifaceted issue.

While tattoos can be a marker of possible criminal affiliation, it is essential not to stereotype or stigmatise individuals based solely on their body art.

  • *Mumbala Tomas Shandjemwene is a former military police officer. He has a bachelor of criminal justice in policing (Nust) and a postgraduate diploma in security and strategic studies (Unam).

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