Ink in the Clink: Prison tattoos explained
Lyemium.com

The act of permanently marking oneself has historically set the individual apart from regular society, and has also symbolized the wearer as a dedicated member of a particular group.

Though cultural acceptance has changed over recent years, tattoos have traditionally marked their wearers as outlaws, rebels, historically worn by sailors, bikers and criminals outside American society and across the globe.

In prison, tattoos often have specific codified meanings. Some may be general indicators of the criminal life. Other tattoos are very specific about the wearer's rank, affiliations, criminal accomplishments or punishments.

The means of applying tattoos in prison are crude due to restrictions on tools that could be used for attacking guards or other inmates. Improvised items include paperclips, staples, refashioned ballpoint pens or guitar strings, for example.

Permanent ink may be taken from pens, or by mixing soot with shampoo, or other less-sanitary mixtures.

Here are a few of the widely seen tattoos found in many prisons across the country and the world. This list is far from comprehensive, as convicts are possessed of plenty of time to innovate.

UNAFFILIATED

tat-three-dots-cwd-820
CJOnline.com

Three dots between thumb and index finger

"Mi vida loca," or "My crazy life": Indicates one's dedication to the gangster lifestyle. However, in French prisons, it means "Death to cops."

tat-five-dots-cwd-820
Drugs-Forum.com

Five dots between thumb and index finger

Multi-denominational: Represents the individual in prison. The center dot is the inmate, surrounded by the four corners or watchtowers of prison.

tat-teardrop-cwd-820
Getty Images

Teardrops on cheek under eye

Traditionally or "West Coast style," a black or filled-in teardrop denotes a murder, each drop representing a victim, and an unfilled drop signified the intent to murder a target, or revenge.

Newer meanings have developed that denote, with unfilled drops, the loss of someone close. They may also represent the amount of time served in prison.

tat-cobweb-cwd-820
TimelessTattooGlasgow

Cobweb on elbow

Denotes time "stuck" in prison. The amount of rings of a web may indicate the amount of years served. A spider outside the web may indicate an ex-convict's achievement of freedom.

tat-cards-cwd-820
Flickr

Playing cards, dice

Affinity for gambling. However, tattoos with different suits have special meaning in Russian prisons.

tat-clock-cwd-820
Flickr

Clock with no hands

Life in prison or lengthy sentence.

tat-acab-cwd-820
InvestigatingCrimes.com

"ACAB"

"All Cops Are Bastards"; alternately "Always Carry A Bible." Sometimes symbolized with dots in between the knuckles on the hand.

AFFILIATED

LATIN GANGS

tat-eme-cwd-820
BarneyFrank.net

Mexican Mafia, or "La Eme"

Spanish for "the M": Black handprint; "Eme"; "Emero"

tat-ms13-cwd-820
Wikimedia

Mara Salvatrucha

"MS 13", "13", "MS", devil horns

tat-norteno-cwd-820
Imgur

Nortenos

Affiliated under Nuestra Familia: "XIV" for the 14th letter "N"; "::" representing "14"; the Warbird

tat-sur-head-cwd-820
FloridaGangReduction.com

Surenos

Affiliated under the Mexican Mafia: "Sur 13" for 13th letter "M"; three dots over two bars signifying "13"

tat-18thst-cwd-820
BBC

18th Street

"18", "X8", "XVII", "666", "99"

tat-latin-king-crown-cwd-820
Florida Dept. of Corrections

Latin Kings

5-pointed crown

tat-barrio-azteca-cwd-820
StopHoustonGangs.org

Barrio Azteca

"21", "XXI", "BA"

AFRICAN-AMERICAN GANGS

tat-bgf-cwd-820
PoliceMag.com

Black Guerilla Family

Crossed swords, machetes, rifles; "BGF" or "276"; horned dragon around tower

tat-crip-cwd-820
WHSV

Crips/Folk Nation

Crowns, six-pointed stars; "211" ("B", "K", meaning "Blood Killer," in reference to rival Bloods gang)

tat-blood-cwd-820
CBSA Tattoo Handbook

Bloods/People Nation

"M.O.B." for Member Of Blood; dog paw; three dots burned on shoulder (representing dog paw)

WHITE GANGS

White supremacist tattoos have various signifiers alluding to Adolf Hitler, Nazism and white supremacy. Norse mythology and pagan symbols also feature in their iconography.

tat-1488-cwd-820
Whiteprisongangs.blogspot.com

"88" = 8th letter of alphabet, "H", as in "Heil Hitler", "14" for a 14-word quotation by white supremacist leader David Lane.

tat-ab-shamrock-cwd-820
CBSA Tattoo Handbook

Aryan Brotherhood ("AB") and Nazi Low Riders ("NLR") use similar white-supremacist designs.

RUSSIAN GANGS

Russian prison gangs, whether in the U.S. or in Mother Russia, use a highly codified system of symbols indicating rank and crime specialty, often with multiple meanings.

tat-stars-shoulders-cwd-820
Lyemium.com

Eight-pointed star = high-ranking thief; Stars on shoulders = high rank

tat-stars-knees-cwd-820
CorrectionsOne.com

Stars on knees = "Will kneel before no man"

tat-icons-cwd-820
ThePlaidZebra.com

Religious icons (saints, angels, Virgin Mary) = Thievery

tat-neck-snake-cwd-820
Mashable.com

Snake around neck = drug addiction

Other Russian prison tattoo symbols:

  • Bow-tie on neck = thief who betrayed (forcibly applied)

  • Cat = thief

  • Skulls, coffins = murder conviction

  • Lighthouse = desire for freedom

  • Wrist manacles = 5 years served for each

  • Eyes on chest = High rank, overseeing others

  • Eyes on lower abdomen = homosexuality

  • Rose on chest, with thorns = "I turned 18 in prison"

  • Rose on chest, no thorns = initiation tattoo in prison

  • Gun-toting cowboy = high-risk thief

  • Skull and crossbones = life term

  • Mermaid = child molestation

  • Dagger through neck = murder committed in prison

  • Dagger = sex offender

  • Barbed wire = years served

  • Domes of churches = sentences served (crosses indicate completion)

Playing card suits indicate:

  • Spade = thief

  • Clubs = general criminal

  • Diamonds = informants (applied by force)

  • Hearts = looking for love (may also have been applied by force)

SOURCES: Smithsonian, CorrectionsOne, The Guardian, Heavy.com, Gang Tattoos Blogspot, Free Tattoo Designs, Wikipedia: Prison tattooing, Wikipedia: Criminal Tattoo, FOX News, Prison Gangs, Public Radio International ConvictedArtist.com, Tat2XBlog, Imgur - Prison Tattoos

Comments