Fake CIA agents, tattoo forensics and SVU
[Image: Benson, Stabler and Captain Cragen with the caption *stares in SVU*.]
While working in the studio last week, I binged season two of New York Magazine’s Cover Story podcast (spoilers to follow). The story is difficult to follow, not least because the two main antagonists are named Matt and Mike, and they spin wildly contradictory and self-serving versions of the same story. Partway through the series, we learn that one of the M-guys faked his CIA background, going so far as to get a tattoo to support his falsified pedigree. What thrilled me was that the producers tracked down the artist who did the tattoo, who turned out to be none other than Lea Vendetta of Ink Master season 1 fame. Lea recounted clear memories of the experience, noting that she didn’t love the crowdedness of the design and asked M to let her simplify it. M insisted each design detail was important to the piece, a sentiment framed by the podcasters as clear evidence of his motivation to misrepresent himself.
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While I have little sympathy for a con man who pretended to be a CIA agent in order to get a billionaire to fund fake off-book missions in foreign countries (they pitch the initiative as “Blackwater done right”), this made me think of the trope in Law & Order SVU where the detectives go to a tattoo shop to identify a suspect or victim via a photo of their tattoo. The tattoo artists are wildly helpful, sometimes motivated by ego (“I would never do work of such poor quality. The guy you’re looking for is Old Time Mickey. He tattoos minors out of the back of a bait and tackle over on Knickerbocker”), and Benson and Stabler always walk away with a lead. This type of police presence at tattoo shops was most recently widely acknowledged in response to the 2020 protests of the George Floyd uprising, with reported IRL incidents like Homeland Security showing up asking artists to identify protestors by their tattoos. In Philly, police detained protestors for failure to disburse (a ticketable offense), using the detainment as a pretext to photograph their tattoos.
Chelsea Chamroeun, 22, said officers repeatedly asked if she had more tattoos that she hadn’t already disclosed. Robin, who requested their last name be withheld, said officers homed in on a drawing of an “anarcho-feminist symbol” that was visible on their leg. “I kept saying, ‘It’s just art, it’s just for fun,’” Robin said, as they snapped the Poloroid.
Tattoo forensics is an area of study all its own (Dr. Michelle D. Miranda is a notable figure in the field) and I can’t claim to be well-versed in it, but I’m struck by the ways that the supposed positives— identifying the remains of loved ones, identifying perpetrators— are leveraged to expand surveillance, tattoo databases and identification software and by extension, police profiling. I first became aware of this when I was an arts instructor at Rikers Island, noticing posters with 90s-style graphics identifying the Virgin of Guadalupe as a marker of Latin Kings membership, dice with Crips membership, and so on. I’ve tried to track down those posters to no avail, but there are many, many PD gang manuals you can find if you look. I’ve started collecting books on the topic when I find them, and am always astounded at what they pass off as inarguable truth.
[“Monster face” tattoo categorized as gang-related by the NYPD.]
There’s an obvious motivation at work here. Casting as wide a net as possible allows police to stop and harass people with impunity. I once called the Tulsa, Oklahoma PD’s gang unit and asked them about their tattoo profiling policies. In a conversation I wish I had recorded, I was told quite straightforwardly by an officer that they based their assumptions on “an intersection of race and subject matter.” When I asked the LAPD the same question— how can a person know if their tattoo will open them up to wrongful profiling by police?— they told me clients should “just google it.” It’s in their best interest to be as opaque as possible. By the Rikers Island poster’s standards, half my clients would be considered members of the Latin Kings.
[More tattoos classified by the NYPD’s gang manual as indicating membership in the Bloods: “reaper & sword” and “grim reaper”.]
The wide characterization of tattoos as officially “gang-related” bears yet another sinister consequence in regard to immigration. The specter of gangs like MS-13 has been used by ICE and DHS as a pretext to detain and deport undocumented young people it claims are gang members, despite the fact that “gang membership itself is not a crime and is not, in and of itself, a basis under which the government can deport an individual (called ‘grounds of removability’ in immigration law). (NYIC)” A 2018 report by the New York Immigrant Coalition titled “Swept Up: The Impact of Gang Allegations on Immigrant New Yorkers” detailed the severe effects of discriminatory profiling on immigrant communities, noting that in addition to experiencing police harassment, people are subjected to deportation or denied immigration benefits due to unsubstantiated gang allegations.
A state audit of California’s state-wide database, CalGang, revealed glaring errors, including information that violated individuals’ privacy rights, names that should have been purged, and inaccurate information. One particularly troublesome finding showed that 42 individuals were entered into the system before they turned one year old; bizarrely, 28 of these infants were entered for admitting to gang membership.
The report is a worthwhile read, particularly as the rhetorical groundwork laid by the Trump administration around MS-13 has expanded gang task forces nationwide (we’ve seen this in New York and especially on Long Island). Tattoos were a notable part of the report (bold emphasis added):
In November 2017, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed suit against the Department of Justice, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Homeland Security demanding records about the agencies’ work on developing a federal Tattoo Recognition Technology program which would rapidly detect tattoos, identify people by their tattoos, match people to others with similar body art, and flag tattoos of religious or ethnic significance. Advocates are greatly concerned about the consequences of such a program, because of the risk of making erroneous assumptions about a person or falsely associating someone with criminal activity based on tattoos.
Last winter California passed AB-2799, the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act, which blocks “creative expression” from being used against defendants in court. In the legislation’s words, “‘creative expression’ means the expression or application of creativity or imagination in the production or arrangement of forms, sounds, words, movements, or symbols, including, but not limited to, music, dance, performance art, visual art, poetry, literature, film, and other such objects or media” (text from the bill). The role of creative expression in court cases has been a high-profile subject recently due to prosecutors’ usage of drill lyrics to bring charges against young people and in Young Thug and YSL’s RICO charges. I’m curious to see how this affects the use of tattoos as evidence in court cases, a relatively common practice in my understanding. Bernie, a narrator I did an oral history with, detailed to me how UK prosecutors used his tattoo of Disney’s Goofy holding a brick as proof of his radical ideals, and Beto, another narrator I interviewed recently, described the humiliation of having to take his shirt off in front of a jury while police wrongfully characterized his tattoos as evidence of involvement in gang violence.
If you’ve experienced anything related to policing and the court system and your tattoos and are interested in recording an oral history interview, please get in touch with me via email— I would love to speak with you. You can hear a project I produced on the subject here: I heard it before I ever saw it.
I co-facilitated a virtual oral history book club last night for Columbia’s OHMA program, alongside fellow alums Taylor Thompson and Kae Bara Kratcha. We had the pleasure of being in conversation with M.E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi, authors of the speculative fiction novel Everything For Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072. We had a wonderful and generative conversation and I loved hearing Eman speak about writing revolutions that are “plausible,” and M.E.’s thoughts about contemporary academia being developed as a counter-tactic to Marx’s writings and theories.
You can pre-order M.E. O’Brien’s new book Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care here.
A talk by Eman Abdelhadi at MSU- Impossible Futures: Why Women Leave American Muslim Communities while Men Stay.
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