The art of tattooing is prevalent across the globe and has been practiced for centuries. They evolved from simple practices like cutting the skin and introducing ink or color, or using a hammer and thorn and organic coloring, to the modern-day techniques of using an electric tattoo machine and acrylic colors. Tattoos have been worn by people to symbolize sentiments, beliefs, experiences or liking of anything ranging from people, to events, to fictional characters, nature and everything in between. We know, of course, that they are a mode of personal expression that uses the medium of art.
And that very mode of expression today can also be attributed to prison members. Prison tattoos have been around for a long time and they are worn by criminals to show their allegiance to their gangs, to represent or symbolize their crimes, their regrets, and also to reveal some information about their lives. But the major difference with this form of tattooing is that, these depictions are coded and the layman may not be aware of their significance unless he has been to jail. These tattoos let other prisoners know where each individual belongs, where their loyalty lies, and as a mark of pride, or a warning to other inmates. If any of you have ever watched "Prison Break", the protagonist Michael Scofield designed a full-body tattoo that acted as the blueprint to help his brother escape from prison. There are many different symbols that can be attributed to specific groups, and others which can signify certain events and acts that the inmate had been a part of.
So let us look for the symbolism behind different prison tattoos from America, Russia, Mexico and everything in between.
Tattoos from America, Europe, and Mexico
Made famous by rappers like the Game and Lil Wayne, the teardrop tattoo worn by prisoners has a far more serious meaning. Each teardrop represents someone they have murdered or someone they have lost. When the teardrop is empty, or drawn just as an outline, it represents attempted murder or plans for revenge by murder. It is said to have originated with the Chicano gangs of California, but is worn today by all sorts of prisoners who have committed or attempted to commit a murder.
Clock with No Hands
The clock with no hands represents doing time, a lengthy sentence, or a sentence of life without parole.
It is worn on the hand or near the eye and is arranged in a triangular manner. Ice Cube is known to sport this tattoo and it stands for "Mi Vida Loca" or "My Crazy Life". It could also in some cases represent the Holy Trinity. It is mostly seen on Hispanic inmates.
The five dots, also known as quincunx, which has a placement similar to the five dots seen on dice, represents being imprisoned. The four outer dots are the walls of the prison and the inner dot is the inmate. It is worn between the thumb and the fore finger. Although prisoners from different gangs are known to sport this tattoo, it is also associated with the People Nation gangs.
The five point crown is synonymous with the Latin King gang that originated in Chicago in the 1940s. The letters ALKN above it stands for Almighty Latin King Nation, who belong to the People Nation network of gangs.
MS 13, Clown Faces, and Devil Horns
The MS 13 symbol is associated with the La Mara Salvatrucha, a Latino gang from Los Angeles that was started by immigrants from El Salvador, and who are known for their violent and cold-blooded nature. They have networks across America, Canada, and Mexico. They are also known to have intricate face tattoos. They also sport the happy and sad clown faces on opposite sides of their shoulder to represent "Laugh now, cry later". The devil horns as shown in the image which if inverted shows "M" for Mara Salvarucha.
Black Hand of Death, 713, and 2 M's in a Circle
These tats are synonymous with the La eMe gang otherwise called the Mexican Mafia, which are one of the most powerful organized crime syndicates. They also share allegiance with the Aryan Brotherhood. It's also related to the Sureño street gangs.
SUR 13, Red Lips, and Angel of Death
These tattoos are connected to the Sureño gang (Southerners in Spanish), a part of the La Eme. The 13 stands for "M" which is the 13th letter of the alphabet. The red lips, are a smart coding of the number 13, which when questioned is said to be inked in memory of a girlfriend. They also have "Play Boys" tattooed, which is a subgroup of the Sureños. The Aztec War God symbol, is worn by foot soldiers of the EME.
Norteño, Sombrero, XIV, and 925
The Norteños or Northerners are the rival gangs of the Sureños. They are controlled by the Nuestra Familia. The sombrero is the symbol of this gang, who also sport the number "XIV" or "14" which stands for "N" which is the 14th letter of the alphabet. The number 925 represents the area code of Northern California.
Aryan Brotherhood and FAIM
The Aryan Brotherhood is a White supremacist gang that use the shamrock (three leaf-clover) with the letters 666 (the Devil's number) in each leaf. They alternately use the letters AB, or the number 12, 1 for the letter "A" and 2 for "B". They are also known as the Alice Baker, One-Two, or The Brand. They also have the initials "FAIM" tattooed, which stands for Family Affiliated Irish Mafia.
Sig Runes, Nazi Swastika, 1488, and the Valknut
These symbols are worn by the white supremacist groups like the Aryan Brotherhood, amongst others. The Sig runes also known as the SS, is a symbol of the Nazi regime along with the swastika. The valknut represents dying in a battle, which is a belief held by Neo-Nazi Aryan groups who are ready to die for their "cause". The 14 stands for the 14 Words, of white nationalist David Lane who said, "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children". The 88 stands for Heil Hitler, "H" being the 8th letter of the Alphabet.
The term was first used by the African Americans who identified themselves with the blackbird and used this term as a derogatory remark against the whites. Since then, the whites used it as a symbol of white pride, which is seen with tattoos of the woodpecker, the letters "PW" or with the term "100% wood".
NLR and Iron Cross
The Nazi Lowriders or NLR are a white supremacist group associated with the Aryan Brotherhood. The use and Iron Cross teamed with the initials "NLR", apart from other white power symbols commonly used like the swastika, sig runes and others.
According to Michael Atkinson, the author of "Tattooed: The Sociogenesis of Body Art", EWMN stands for "Evil, Wicked, Mean, and Nasty". It is often seen on the knuckles of inmates.
The Four Suits and Playing Cards
The four symbols of the suits can be seen on the knuckles and signifies luck or the gamble the prisoners took in life. The playing cards have the same meaning, but when worn by Russians, the symbols take on a different meaning. The clubs symbolize criminals in general, the spades is for thieves, the diamonds is forcefully inked on informants, and the hearts is for someone looking for a romantic fling within the prison, also applied forcefully sometimes.
Seen commonly on the elbows, the spiderweb represents time in the prison, caught behind bars. It can also mean being caught up in the gang lifestyle. As a Russian tattoo, the spiderweb along with a spider in it is seen on the heads of the prisoners, and signifies drug addictions and repeat offenders. Each ring can also represent each year spent in prison, and a spider in the center may mean dedication to the gang life, and a spider coming out of the web may represent a prisoner trying to reform himself.
Found usually on British prisoners, it stands for "All Cops are B*****ds". It can alternately also stand for "Always Carry a Bible", but that is less likely.
Noose and 311
The noose is a symbol worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan, who were known for their mass lynchings of African Americans in the beginning of the 20th century. The 311 also refers to the KKK. "K" is the eleventh letter of the alphabet, so three times eleven would be "K" three times over, thus signifying the KKK.
Sacra, SSM, NS, and S Initials
These initials are worn by members of the white supremacist group Sacramaniacs, which is denoted by "S" and is sometimes worn in the design of the Nazi sig runes. SSM stands for "South Sacramento Sacramaniac", while NS is "North Sacramaniac. The word "Sacra" may also be tattooed in stylized fonts.
BGF, 276, and Dragon Holding a Gun Tower
These are all symbols worn by members of the Black Guerrilla Family, which is a political prison gang.
Written in old English fonts, these initials stand for the Red Blood Dragons.
Pitchfork+Star, 6, and Joint with a Ghost Face
Worn by members of the Gangster Disciples, the pitchfork represents a struggle to overcome repression, while a 6-pointed Jewish star attached underneath it symbolizes their quasi-religious values of life, loyalty, knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and love. The number 6 is also associated with the gang, while a joint with the smoke portrayed as a ghost face represents their protective attitude for their territory and the harm that will be inflicted on those who cross their boundaries.
This is the Hispanic pronunciation of Santa Ana, and is given to Hispanic members who came from Orange County, California.
Circle with Two Machetes, Eagle with Serpent, and Aztec Pyramids
Mexicanemi or EMI is another gang related to the La Eme. These symbols together signify the gang's struggle against their oppressors.
T with a Snake/Ribbon Around It and 2019
This is a symbol worn by members of the Texas Syndicate, another prison gang. The number 2019 represents "T" and "S" which are the 20th and 19th letters of the alphabet respectively.
XV3, 18, M18, XVIII, Mara 18, La 18, and Calle 18
These are all different symbols worn by the 18th Street Gang. XV3 is an addition of XV which is 15, and 3 which together forms 18.
TCB and 100% Chicano
TCB stands for the prison gang by the name of Texas Chicano Brotherhood, which began in El Paso, Texas.
BB and 22
The Border Brothers is a Mexican prison gang that started in the 1980s for protection in prison. The 22 stands for BB which is the 2nd letter of the alphabet. The Arizona members wear the letters BB with an Aztec sun or a jaguar.
AFFA, Death Head, 1%, and Bloody Orcs
The AFFA stands for the "Angels Forever, Forever Angels", a motto of the Hells Angels gang. The Death Head is a symbol of the gang, while 1% refers to a member of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, which is a subgroup. The Bloody Orcs were also a puppet club of the Hells Angels.
OYBBQ, Blood, Dog Paw, and Piru
The United Blood Nation gang uses the 13/13 cipher. According to this in the letters "OYBBQ", the "O" stands for "B" the "Y" stands for "L", the "B" stands for "O" and the "Q" stands for "D", thus forming the word "Blood". The dog paw is another symbol of the gang, while the word Piru refers to the faction of the gang called "Compton Pirus" which originated in West Piru Street in Compton, Los Angeles.
CRIP, IGC, and Rollin' 60s
These are all symbols of the gang Crips, where IGC stands for Insane Gangster Crip, The Rollin' 60's were a subgroup of the Crips.
The Dream-catcher is worn by Native Americans who have served time in prison, which is predominant in the prisons of Texas, Arizona, and Missouri. It symbolizes an Indian Warrior, where each feather in it represents a crime committed against the white society. It is often seen on the neck or skull.
LAO, LB, and Marijuana Bracelet
These symbols are worn by the members of the gang Laotian Boys. The marijuana bracelet shows support for the sale and use of the substance by the members.
Domes of a Russian Church
Each dome of a church may represent the number of years spent in jail or the different prison institutions they have been to.
Cross on the Chest
This one is worn by very high ranking criminals, also known as the "Prince of Thieves".
Worn on both knees, it symbolizes not kneeling down to authority. When worn on the shoulders, the eight-pointed star represents a high-ranking thief or a criminal of authority.
Tiger on the Chest
Tiger when portrayed on the chest signifies aggression, especially towards authorities like the police.
The rose is tattooed on the chest and it means that the wearer turned 18 in prison. A white dried rose means that they would rather die than lose their virtue.
This tattoo signifies a yearning for freedom and may reveal a potential escapee. It can also mean that the wearer may be a thief who is constantly on the move.
The barbed wire worn on the forehead can signify a life sentence without parole. Each of the barbs can also symbolize the number of years spent in prison.
Madonna and Jesus
This tattoo has multiple meanings. It can be worn as a symbol to ward off evil, to show affiliation to a gang, or that the wearer has been a criminal since childhood.
When the dagger is portrayed as going through the neck, it symbolizes someone who has committed murder in prison and is available for hire as an assassin. Other daggers symbolize a sex offender and is usually applied by force.
A cat head represents a thief. A single cat signifies working alone, while several cats can denote being part of a gang. The word "KOT" which is Russian for cat is an acronym for the Russian equivalent of "native prison resident".
An executioner can again be a symbol for an assassin for hire or someone who follows the Thieves' Code.
243 in a Police Badge
The number 243 which is often portrayed within a police badge signifies assault or battery on an officer and is taken from the California Penal Code for the same.
It stands for peace, or as an acronym for the Russian phrase "Only a firing squad can reform me".
Tattooed forcefully, it symbolizes an informant.
People like Lenin, Stalin, Marx, and Friedrich Engels were tattooed on the chest or vital organs because it was against the law to shoot images that symbolize the founding fathers of Russia.
A tombstone represents time served and it generally has the number of years (ex, 1980-2000) written in the stone.
Skulls and Epaulets
If a murder was very significant a skull is tattooed on the prisoner. When worn with epaulets and military insignia, it signifies their criminal accomplishments or designates the occupation of a murderer to him.
Manacles and Bells
Manacles on the leg represent a prison sentence of five years or longer. When bells are attached, it means the prison term was served in full. A broken manacle means the prisoner broke out of prison.
When worn on the chest, it signifies "I can see everything". When worn on the stomach, it signifies homosexuality.
Bow Tie on the Neck
A bow-tie on the neck is applied by force on a thief who has broken the code. When a dollar sign is added, it means that he was a safe-cracker or a money launderer.
Snake Around the Neck
This tattoo symbolizes drug addiction.
A mermaid is worn by a prisoner who was sentenced for child molestation.
Ring tattoos can have different meanings, one with a tombstone can symbolize loss of a parent while in prison, while an inverted spade can mean someone who was imprisoned for delinquency.
The scarab beetle is worn as a symbol of good luck or to denote someone who was a pickpocket.
These are some of the most prominent tattoos seen on prisoners and some of the meanings they take on are intriguing at best. So the next time you come across these tattoos, you will know exactly what they are trying to suggest!