Prison Tattoos and Their Meanings
What Is a Prison Tattoo?
Prison tattooing is the practice of "getting inked" while behind bars. Many prisoners do so in order to affirm and convey gang membership, indicate their rank in that gang, or to display their ability to endure pain, while others choose designs that symbolize their time inside or use the tattoo as a sign or code to display their crimes on their skin for all to see.
Because tattooing is not legal in US prisons, inmates don't have access to the proper equipment or supplies, and this is why they invent other methods and devices from the materials at hand, things like paper clips, staples, mechanical pencils, ballpoint pens, and other random spare parts. They also improvise their own ink by taking it from pens or making it from mixing melted rubber, plastic, or Styrofoam, soot, and shampoo. Lack of equipment and sterile conditions can lead to health risks like infection or diseases (including hepatitis, HIV, tetanus, and many others). This is why most prison tattoos look rougher than professional ones and represent an additional level of danger and risk.
Tattoos made in the prison style are done with only black ink and have dark outlines with little or no interior detail or shading. Recently, the stick 'n' poke method of do-it-yourself tattooing has become a fad, but this style of self-decoration has been happening in prisons all over the world for over a hundred years.
Below, you'll find information about various US gangs' tattoos and the interpretations of other common prison ink designs.
Note: The term "prison tattoo" can refer to one done in prison, done to mark time in prison, done in the style of a prison tattoo, or in more general terms, done to indicate criminal activity.
Mexican Mafia Tattoos and Their Meanings
The Sureños, or southern Mexican Mafia, originated in Los Angeles, a city notorious for its gang activity. The gang identifies itself through the colors blue and gray (which are also the colors of the L.A. Dodgers and Duke University). The Sureños are often highly visible by their body art.
The Number 13. They particularly love the number 13 and display it in many different styles. They may use Arabic, Roman, or even Aztec numbers. The 13th letter of the alphabet is the letter 'M' which stands for Mexican Mafia. This is also expressed as 'EME' (pronounced emmy) and therefore the letters EME or eMe may be tattooed somewhere on the body, particularly the upper arm. The letters MM may also be used.
Three Dots. The three dots are also closely associated with the Sureños. You frequently see them on gang members' faces. They sometimes signify a high rank in the gang. Usually, only people who have actually gone to prison will have the three dots on their face. The dots might also represent the words "mi vida loca," or "my crazy life."
The Norteños are the northern group of the Mexican Mafia. The general dividing line between the northern and southern mafias is Bakersfield, California. The Norteños are the enemies of the Sureños. They call themselves Nuestra Familia (Our Family) or use letters to indicate gang allegiance.
The Number 14. For the Norteños, the number 14 is significant. The 14th letter of the alphabet is the letter 'N' for Norteños. They also use variations of this number in Arabic, Roman, or Aztec notation.
The Initials MS. The Norteños use many abbreviations. MS may stand for Mara Salvatrucha or Mi Sueño or any kind of Spanish phrase, so be careful not to have those initials tattooed on your body if you can avoid it.
The Number 13 Tattoo
- Tres Puntos (three dots)
- Any other version of the number 13
- 213 (the area code for Los Angeles)
- La Eme (M is the 13th letter of the alphabet)
- L.A. (L is the 12th letter in the alphabet and A is the first, which add up to 13)
Mexican Gang-Associated Words, Phrases, and Acronyms
- MF - Mi Familia (My Family)
- MVL - Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)
- MS - Mara Salvatrucha (a Salvadoran Gang)
- NF or LNF - La Nuestra Familia (Our Family)
- Catorce - 14 in Spanish
- Trece - 13 in Spanish
Getting inked on the face or hands is a serious step, as getting one there marks you for all the world to see. There are few people willing to go through life with a "brand" on their faces, especially one that marks them as a criminal. In prisons and jailhouses, the face and hand tattoos are the most telling of all.
Teardrops have many meanings to the wearer. They also mean different things to the people looking at the tatts. The meaning of a teardrop is very personal and may or may not mean the same thing to everyone: This is what makes it a dangerous design choice.
- Some say the teardrop is a sign of a killer. The number of teardrops indicates how many "kills" the wearer has committed.
- It may also signify a memorial for a gang member who was killed in action, so to speak. Sometimes women will put a teardrop on their face if their man has died or gone to prison.
- Teardrops on the left side of the face can mean something different from teardrops on the right. Only the wearer knows for sure what it means.
- Teardrops can be filled in, half-filled in, or empty. An empty teardrop might signify an attempted murder. It might also mean that one of the inmate’s friends was murdered and they want revenge. Each of these designs has its own meaning to the wearer.
The teardrop has been made popular by rappers and other celebrities, but it means something dead serious in prison. The best advice for anyone considering one would be to consult with an experienced artist before getting any kind of facial or hand tattoo. Some artists refuse to put tattoos on the face of hands, for good reasons, which you should know about.
The Aryan Brotherhood
The Aryan Brotherhood is a tight gang of white supremacists. These guys are neo-Nazis who strongly believe in the superiority of the white race. Hitler is their hero, and they do not acknowledge the rights of other races, believing that non-whites are only useful as slaves. These guys are deranged and dangerous. As a result, if you get an "AB" tattoo, you may provoke both Black and Mexican gangs.
The Aryan Brotherhood is very protective of its members. The AB design is not allowed on a non-member under any circumstances. The only way to obtain membership is by the "blood in/blood out" method. In other words, you must kill an AB target to "make your bones" and you must be voted in unanimously. The only way out is by your own death.
If you are white, you may choose to associate with the AB and receive protection while in prison, but the tattoo is reserved for true members.
The AB usually support themselves through drug trafficking, but they are not limited to any specific activity and will readily engage in nearly any kind of crime. These guys are ruthless and unless you are one of them, it is certainly best to avoid any design that has Irish or German associations. Even Norse Gods may be a new style for the AB.
Don't use the numbers 666 or the Gothic letters "AB." A swastika or Nazi symbol is also a bad idea. The number 1488 (or the numbers 14 or 88) is often displayed on white supremacists. This is a reference to the 14 words in the quote by Nazi leader David Lane: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.” The 88 refers to the 8th letter of the alphabet twice, or HH, or "heil Hitler." Typically, these tattoos can be found anywhere on the body.
Celtic knots are probably all right, although there is no telling whether the AB will adopt them.
The Black Guerrilla Family
The Black Guerrilla Family consists of many groups. They are politically oriented and fight for equality. The Black Guerrilla Family became a force to be reckoned with in 1966 during the Civil Rights Movement. Black people organized into many organizations including the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Black Liberation Army, the Weather Underground, United Blood Nation, Black Family, Black Vanguard, Black Mafia, and others.
They have anti-government views which cause problems for prison administrators. The Black Guerrilla Family is close-knit and can be very dangerous. Be careful with tattoos that have the number 276 in them. Also avoid marking yourself with an area code which designates what part of the country you are from.
They may associate with almost all gangs except the Aryan Brotherhood, but will sometimes try to work with the AB if it is mutually agreeable and beneficial. A large segment of the prison and jailhouse population is Black and Hispanic so they generally outnumber and oppose the AB. For this reason, the Aryan Brotherhood has toned down their tattoos in order to blend in with the general population while incarcerated.
Black Gang Tattoos
Black gang tattoos include many symbols associated with prisons and fighting for the "cause."
- jungle animals
- sign language
- numbers (like 276)
- phone area codes
- locks, keys, and keyholes
- guns, knives, artillery, weapons
- Initials of specific gangs, e.g. BGF for Black Guerrilla Family
Other Miscellaneous Gangs and their Tattoos
The Texas Syndicate: A gang of Texans incarcerated in California started this group. They are closely related to the Aryan Brotherhood and known for their extreme violence and a special "TS" marking that they rarely use.
The 18th St. Gang out of the West Side of Los Angeles: They started out as second-generation Mexican immigrants. This group has become national and now includes non-Hispanic members. They may have "18th Street," "XV3," "XVIII," "666" (which equals 18), "Dieciocho," or "Eighteenth Street" spelled out.
The Latin Kings out of Chicago are known for their three-point and five-point crowns and their five-point stars. They begin their gang names with "king," as in King Carlos or King Beto, etc. They are a Latino gang and their slogan is "Amor del Rey'"(ADR) or Love of the King.
Female Gangs are still in the making. Most women are attached one way or another to a male gang and may have the same tattoos, though they aren't considered true members. Their ranks are increasing, however, and all-girl gangs are beginning to show up in the prison population.
Asian Gangs have existed for many years, some transplanted from an originating country. There are the Triads, Tongs, Yakuza, and Boryokudan. They are into home-invasion-type crimes and car theft and they will often team up for protection in jail. These gangs have many names and many tattoos. It is probably best to avoid Chinese or Japanese characters unless you are quite certain what they mean and that they don't signify gang affiliation.
Native American Gangs have formed all over the country in response to the other gangs crowding in on them. Native Americans may be associated with outlaw biker gangs. They do tend to protect Native American interests in and out of prison. At best, these gangs help protect Native Americans. At worst, they are a collection of teenagers who indulge in crime, drugs, and violence. Native American tattoos are all considered sacred and must be earned. As long as you don't go overboard with Native American symbols or have them put on your face and hands, you should be safe enough.
Outlaw Biker Gangs should be avoided at all costs. These gangs are very violent and protective of their members. They have many requirements for club membership. Skull tattoos are common, as are motorcycles, leather items, and weapons. They prefer to use patches sewn into their leather "cuts." However, they do love to get inked —a lot.
Other Common Prison Tattoos
Spiderwebs, often seen on the elbow, usually represent a long time in prison— so long the wearer is covered in cobwebs. This design represents how the wearer is stuck behind bars like a fly in a spiderweb. (If you see a multi-colored web, it’s probably not a real prison tattoo; in jail, there is no access to colored ink.)
A cross on the chest, especially in Russian prisons, represents a "prince of thieves," which is the highest rank a convict can achieve. This sign is reserved for the mob's kingpins.
Five dots is an international design that represents time done in prison. Also known as the quincunx, four dots are placed where the corners of a square might be to represent four walls, and the fifth dot in the center to represent the inmate.
A clock without hands is, fairly obviously, a symbol of "doing time." Sometimes it's inked on the wrist like a wristwatch, other times elsewhere and shaped like a pocket watch, a wall clock, or a grandfather clock. The fact that the clock has no hands represents how time stands still or loses meaning when you're "inside."
Playing cards are often used to indicate how life is a gamble and the criminal who's caught has been dealt a bad hand.
EWMN: Sometimes found inked on knuckles, these letters stand for "evil, wicked, mean, and nasty" and are worn by criminals who revel in their crimes.
A.C.A.B.: This acronym is often found on British inmates and stands for “all cops are bastards.”
Be Careful Getting a Tattoo
It's your responsibility to know ahead of time what the meanings of your tatts are. Should you get the wrong kind and end up in jail, you may have to pay for that tattoo with your life.
Tattoos are often a crucial way for prison gangs to mark membership. If you are arrested, gang members will either protect you as one of their own or target you if they think you're posing as one of them. Only true members are allowed to have certain designs, and if you are not qualified, they will burn it off of your skin or worse. They will not use anesthesia either, so be very, very careful!
© 2012 Lela