Gang, Prison and Gangsta Style Tattoos
A few generations ago, most tattoos were viewed as potential gang tattoos – whether or not they were actually gang related. That’s because tattooing was relatively uncommon among the mainstream public, and having a tattoo almost automatically meant that you had some sort of criminal association.
In other words, though most people didn't have the skill to identify symbols, it was more or less taken for granted that tattoos were connected to a criminal underworld.
Luckily today, tattoos are very common and have lost that kind of association. This doesn't mean that gang tattoos have disappeared altogether. There are still tattoo designs that are specific to the different ethnic gangs that operate in the major cities. Gang and prison tattoos have more in common with traditional tribal tattoos than they do with modern decorative body art: they are designed to mark an individual as a member of a group, as well as being an indication of status.
This is Anthony Garcia, a gang member with a tattoo of a murder he committed
Gang Tattoo Symbols
|Symbol for the Latin Kings||Symbol for the Latin Disciples||Symbol for the Ambrose gang|
Gang and prison tattoos work like a sort of code and speak a language of their own. Numbers and letters are important gang symbols. They indicate for example what status a member has in the group or what a prisoner is in for.
Here are some examples of numbers and their meaning used by various gangs:
- 000: blood (Crips)
- 006: silence (Black Gangster Disciples)
- 023: watch your back (Bloods)
- 6-6-6: (Crips and Folks)
- 7: symbol for the 7th letter of the alphabet "G", stands for God or Gangster.
- 14: used by Hispanic gangs in California.
- 18: stands for 18th street gang, a Hispanic gang in LA.
- RRR: Respect, Reputation, Revenge
- 50/50: non-gang member
A lot of gang members have one or more teardrop tattoos under their eyes, especially if they've spend time in jail. The meaning of the tears is not always the same though and has evolved over the years:
- In the US, most commonly a tear tattoo means that the wearer has killed someone. This is the original meaning, originating from the Chicano gangs in California.
- It can also mean the wearer has lost a loved one or a fellow gang member.
- Sometimes the wife or girlfriend of an inmate gets a tear tattoo to show her solidarity.
Ethnic Gang Tattoos
For the average person, it is unlikely that you will encounter gang tattoos at a close enough range to try and identify them. They are a way for gang members to identify each other and members of rival gangs.
Gang or prison tattoos vary across different cultures, although some elements seem to be universal:
- Japanese gang tattoos (which usually identify members of the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia) take the form of simple black rings around the arm – one ring for each major crime a gang member has committed. The similarity with tribal tattooing is quite strong – there, too, tribe members got additional tattoos in recognition of deeds they had done.
Usually though, tattoos of Yakuza members are very elaborate and detailed, going from sleeve to full body tattoos.
- Hispanic and Mexican gang tattoos vary a lot, because they relate to the numerous specific gangs. One recurring image is a five-pointed crown; this is often found on the upper arm. Alternatively, a small five pointed star can be found on the hand, between the thumb and first finger.
The designs are highly symbolic in nature, often showing the members’ religious background or blood ties. The common praying hands tattoo that you see often signifies ‘praying to God for forgiveness’ for one’s deeds. Another common image is the ‘Lady of Guadalupe’, a favorite saint of many Hispanics.
- Russian prison tattoos: tattooing was and is a very common practice among Russian inmates. Just like gang tattoos, they form a secret language that pictures all kinds of information about the wearer, such as hierarchy, commited crimes, etc.
Here are some examples:
- Cats: a cat tattoo means that the inmate's former career is thievery. Multiple cats mean that he was part of a gang.
- Birds: I was born free and should be free.
- Skulls: a skull tattoo symbolizes murder.
- Shoulder insignia: solitary confinement.
- Barbed wire: the number of years of imprisonment.
Most gang and prison tattoos have fuzzy, unsteady lines compared to those of professional tattoos. That's because they are done with self made tattoo guns and ink. The ink used in Russian prisons for example was made with melted shoe soles, mixed with urine and blood.
Gangsta Style Tattoos
Gangsta tattoos are getting mainstream nowadays, because they are idealized and popularized by rappers. When gang or ghetto tattoos are taken out of their context (the gang) they are not the real thing anymore.
Here are a few examples of gangsta style tattoos: