An Eye Is Upon You - 203: Secret Signs

Published: 19 September, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 203, September, 2011

Hands up if you’ve ever hidden your tattoo? Maybe you’ve worn long sleeves to an interview or donned a high necked shirt for dinner with your partners parents? Perhaps you’ve avoided showing your own family your newly acquired ink, opting for a quieter life, even if it meant a sweaty one?

If you recognise yourself in any of these scenarios, and I fully expect that most of us will, I have a question for you – what exactly were you hiding your tattoos from? What was it that were you were afraid of?

Of course, it’s natural to fear the judgment of others, especially if that judgment is formed by prejudice – and it’s prejudice that is the overwhelming theme in the story of a group of American teenagers who came to be known as the West Memphis Three.

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelly were convicted of murder in 1994, despite there being no evidence of their involvement in the crime.

Understandably this conviction has been repeatedly refuted by the defendants – and they’ve found worldwide support in the alternative community for their claims of innocence. The West Memphis Three believe that their only ‘crime’ was a liking of black clothing, their choice of hairstyles and their preference for metal music. And that it was this ‘evidence’ alone that led to conviction.

In court, the three were theorised as being part of a satanic cult by a so-called expert witness, a witness that was later roundly discredited. This blatant prejudice was not just recognised, but also related to by a number of high profile misfits; Johnny Depp, Marilyn Manson, Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins have all publicly stated support for the West Memphis Three, with Rollins promoting a fund raising album featuring cover versions of Black Flag songs, entitled ‘Rise Above’. High profile and grass root monetary donations eventually paid for DNA testing, unavailable at the time of conviction – this testing found no evidence of any of the three teenagers being present, but instead found the DNA of another, previously unsuspected person.

In August 2012, after 18 years in prison the West Memphis Three were released under an irregular plea bargain, still stating their innocence. They have vowed to continue their fight for total exoneration and an apology from the state of Arkansas; the state that deprived them of their liberty for over half their lives.

The West Memphis Three are an extreme example of prejudice against those that don’t fit or perhaps more pointedly, those who do not wish to fit in, but it’s a prejudice that many
of us have experienced in milder form and quite understandably may seek to avoid. However, prejudice is defined as opinions preconceived without reason or knowledge, and as such
it can only be fought by familiarity and education.

So to continue to cover up in order to avoid potential judgment is conversely to reinforce prejudice, implying that our taste in art is somehow shameful, something to be concealed, akin to a guilty conscience. Instead, we must allow our peculiarities to walk outside amongst the ‘normal’ and in turn, allow those peculiarities to become normal.

Online activism seeks to end workplace discrimination for those that are tattooed, pierced or have other outward signs of an alternative viewpoint and whilst I believe these campaigns have honourable intent, the concept of choice must be kept in mind. Unlike others who may face appearance-related discrimination, we have chosen to look as we do and with that choice comes responsibility. Each of us must exercise that responsibility and find ways to dispel prejudice with positivity.

Relishing our outsider status and actively participating in a wider community are not necessarily exclusive; it is up to each of us to negotiate our place in that community, whilst recognising that the negative opinions of others are largely based on the unknown.

Recently, Ian Pointen, chairman of The Kent Police Federation, has been reported in the mainstream press as saying that tattoos should no longer be stigmatised, that police officers with tattoos on display can function as an icebreaker and that no complaints have been made about tattooed police men or women. Nonetheless, the official line for police in the UK remains as nothing ‘offensive’ nor ‘excessive’ – subjective rules which are applied unevenly.

Honesty and authenticity is key, if there is no difference between a law enforcement officer and suspect, or less dramatically, between interviewer and interviewee, then to keep up the pretence of separation is to reinforce unnecessary divisions.

Be out, be proud. Be who you really are, the rest of the world will get used to it… and Welcome home, West Memphis Three.


Text: Paula Hardy-Kangelos