Special Signs

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These wonderful little Polish prison tattoos have been circulating around the internet recently, but many sites have neglected to mention the young Polish artist, Katarzyna Mirczak (b.1980) who both collected and photographed them. Furthermore, some of these sites  have completely forgotten to mention their status as artworks rather than a archived historical collection. Mirczak, whose photographic work focused on fieldwork documentation and journalism, was actually trained as an archaeologist at Jagiellonian University, the same university that collected the tattoos. And, I would argue that the crisp, stark, and seemingly straightforward nature of her photographs, perhaps stemming from her academic background, is essential to how they are read as photographs.

In 2010, Mirczak debuted the series Special Signs (alternately translated as Distinguishing Marks) at Paris Photo, backed by London gallerist Eric Franck. The collection, comprised of 60 tattoos preserved in formaldehyde, had been collected from neighboring prison(er)s by the University’s Department of Forensic Medicine since 1872. In an essay accompanying the photographs, Mirczak explained the tattoos’ function as social symbols within the prison, claiming that prison tattoos were thought to be only for deviants and criminals, each crudely poked image representing something of its wearer. The article goes on to explain that in the 1970s, law enforcement undertook an investigation of these tattoos, among others, to try to map a sort of criminal code.

The bright, backlit presentation of these formaldehyde jars is not unique to this series; Mirczak’s other photographic series, such as the decontextualized display of unlikely murder weapons in Tools of Crime, as they might be seen in an evidence room. Similarly, each tattoo is presented as an curiosity on a light box. But it is a mistake to treat these images as documents of their own visual contents; each image probes visual conventions of science and “straightforwardness.” From the act of scraping images off dead prisoners in the 1800s to mounting a scientific inquiry into their meaning in the 1970s, Mirczak’s images, in their easily overlooked sterility, add another layer of context to the scientific, logical, methodically driven documentation process of our time.

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