Here's What Common Prison Tattoos Really Mean
The art of tattooing can be traced back to just about every culture in history from the Greeks who used it to communicate to the Romans and Germans who marked prisoners.
As we compare historical tattooing two what it's become today, it's obvious that symbolism is still a heavy feature. While many modern artists and clients are content with getting certain pieces for the sake of aesthetics rather than meaning, symbolism has always had its place in the practice.
Most people who get tattoos do so because they have a deeper meaning behind them. But prisoners with tattoos take these secret meanings and hidden symbols to a completely different level. There's basically a tattoo for every occasion in prison, every kind of criminal, and in every culture. It could mean why you've gone to prison or what group you're affiliated with. Some of the tattoos are pretty terrifying when you realize what they mean.
Today, we're taking a look at some of the most common prison and gang tattoos so we can decode the secret meanings behind them. Let's just say that most of these tattoos aren't common for those who didn't go to prison. What do you think some of these eerie inkings mean? We have the answers!
A teardrop tattoo is probably the most recognizable of all the prison tattoos. It typically means that the person has murdered someone, but sometimes, the outline of a teardrop will indicate attempted murder rather than the real deal. Either way, murder is involved in some shape or form with the teardrop.
Usually, the teardrop is placed in one of the most visible, and logical, places on a person's body: on the face below the eye. This way it makes it look like the person is actually shedding a tear. However, people have started to revamp the meaning of the teardrop tattoo to represent losing a loved one or revenge.
Clock With No Hands
Naturally, many prison tattoos that we present on this list have to do with serving a long prison sentence, and the clock with no hands is one of the more common ones. Some prisoners will even have it tattooed on their wrist, like a watch that they'll never remove, elevating the meaning.
Most prison wrist tattoos serve the purpose of narrating the history of a prisoner's conviction, including his crime, but most are representations of the sentencing and time spent behind bars. Like any piece of artwork, prisoners customize these templates with their own symbols that personally relate to their unique stories.
Cross On The Chest
A cross tattoo normally doesn’t have any special meaning in prison, but that’s not the case in Russia. Here in America people jump to Christianity or religious devotion, but think again. Across the world, if a prisoner has a cross on their chest it means they’ve achieved a high rank in the mafia.
These Russian-born tattoos have since spread to all kinds of prisons all over the world due to globalization, but they were initially used to brand prisoners, transforming into a symbol of aggression and overall vigor. Other common tattoos in this genre include barbed wire, cobwebs, eight-pointed stars, and one-eyed eagles.
If you see a prisoner with three dots, they probably are involved with a gang, but it can be hard to determine which one. The tattoo stands for “mi vida loca” (my crazy life), and is associated with the gangster lifestyle. However, it does not indicate membership in any specific gang.
The most obvious gangs are associated with the Mexican mafia active in Southern California, where this tattoo trend was popularized. The primary mafia is divided into the Surenos and Nortenos with their own distinctive tattoos, but both gangs incorporate the three dots to signify allegiance to one of the groups, typically the Surenos.
This is another incredibly common and easy-to-miss tattoo done in prison or on prisoners. A tattoo with five dots is a common tattoo that indicates you are serving or have served time. The four outer dots represent the four walls of the prison, while the middle dot represents the prisoner themselves.
You wouldn't think tattoos that look so simple would be chock-full of meaning, but that's kind of the whole point. Similarly, three-dot tattoos can have a double meaning of gang membership and religious faith. Likewise, four-dot tattoos symbolize good luck, prosperity, and overall happiness despite your present situation.
“1488” is not specifically a prison tattoo, but you will sometimes see it on inmates with white supremacist ties. The meaning of the tattoo is actually broken up into two parts--14 and 88. 14 refers to the “Fourteen Words”--a quote by Nazi leader David Lane, while 88 refers to H, the eighth letter of the alphabet.
So, essentially, 88 stands for HH, or “Heil Hitler.” These tattoos can be associated with the Aryan Brotherhood, a white gang of Neo-Nazis. Hitler is their hero, so they memorialize him in some way on their body forever. Messed up, right? Any tattoos like this one are filled with meaning and make you an easy target for gangs.
There isn't much do in prison, but cards are something to pass the time. Prisoners who like to gamble will sometimes get playing cards tattooed on them to indicate their interest to other prisoners. However, in Russia, the specific suits will sometimes hold secret meanings that have to do with what kind of crime the prisoner committed.
For many, Russian-origin playing cards tattoos are some of the best ink in the world. Another meaning of the tattoo is as an indication that the prisoner has poor luck and their lives have turned into a gamble past the casual card game. The card they choose from the 52 in the typical deck is typically based on how they view themselves and their situation.
Knife Through The Neck
A knife tattoo through the neck holds a special meaning in Russian prisons. It means that the wearer has killed, is unafraid to kill, or is available for hire as an assassin. It's basically a visual resume of all of your "accomplishments" inked on your body for everyone to see.
Prison tattoo artists used jerry-rigged razors and ink made from ashes, urine, and rubber to ink their cell mates. Some prickers got so popular that prisoners would want a transfer so they could get inked from a specific artist no matter the potential hazards or incredibly dangerous methods.
EWMN is a tattoo that lets fellow prisoners know exactly who they’re dealing with. It stands for “Evil, Wicked, Mean, Nasty”, and the people who get it generally feel the labels apply to them. Makes sense, no? This kind of ink typically indictes that the prisoner wearing the tatt isn't remorseful or are trying to "own" their crime.
As you know, prison tattoos are badges of a prisoner's status in terms of crime. The worse the crime and the more confidently you own it, the more likely you'll be in a position of power over other more remorseful prisoners. The EWMN serves as this kind of "elevating" tattoo.
ACAB is a tattoo that stands for “All Cops Are Bastards.” It’s typically worn by criminals who have violently clashed with the police or have no fear of doing so. However, it has recently transformed into more of a political statement and can be seen on signs and stickers as well as traditional graffiti and ink.
If a prisoner would rather not be so obvious about their feelings toward the police, they opt for coded language and symbolism that fits the genre of other prison tatts. For instance, ACAB can be numerically represented as "1312," like how "1488" stands for neo-Nazi ideology. Fortunately, the political ACAB movement is less malicious than Nazis and typically just support police reform.
The Latin Kings are a Hispanic gang, and their official symbol is a five-point crown. This gang exists outside of prison, but it’s not uncommon to see members in jail sporting the tattoo. This tattoo is undeniably one of the most popular tattoos in the Western Hemisphere.
Like what we discussed regarding the EWMN tattoo, the five-point crown represents status and can immediately raise a gang member through the ranks and broaden their influence in the larger society. But what does it actually mean? Essentially, the crown represents allegiance and protection and is located near or on the skin of the head, accordingly.
MS-13 is an El Salvadorian gang with members in prison, and they will often tattoo themselves with the name of the gang. Typically, these tattoos are in prominent places, like the face or hands and include symbolism we have already discussed, such as teardrops, dots, crowns, and other distinctive imagery.
The color blue is most commonly associated with these Mexican Mafia tattoos, but a blend of brown and black is also used depending on the circumstances. Any variation of "13," "X3," or "XIII" can be indicative of this gang as it represents the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, M.
A Norteño tattoo indicates that someone is a member of the Nuestra Familia Hispanic gang. Norteño on its own merely means someone who is a native of northern Mexico or musical association with this area and Texas. These tattoos, however, are associated directly with the Hispanic gangs of northern California.
Sometimes, members will instead sport a single N or a 14, since it’s the 14th letter of the alphabet, instead of the entire term. If you haven't already gathered, ingrained symbolism is heavily related to prison and gang tattoos, so any opportunity for some veiled meaning is taken with these body mods.
While some gangs operate both inside and outside prison, the Aryan Brotherhood is a white ethnic gang that is exclusive to prison. We've already discussed their "1488" imagery, but it unfortunately doesn't end there. Its members will usually have AB tattooed on them accompanied by plenty of other Nazi imagery.
While "1488" is a veiled reference to Hitler, "AB" is a straightforward representation of the Aryan Brotherhood's initials. If you're truly dedicated, prisoners will get the entire phrase blasted across their backs like this fella in the picture. There's no words to describe how ridiculous it'd be to spend so much money, time, and pain getting Hitler tattooed on your spine.
Ever heard of the term "cat burglar," indicating someone a thief who enters a building from the upper story? Keep that in mind... In Russian prisons, cat tattoos have nothing to do with the prisoners’ pets. Instead, this a common symbol that someone is a thief. See how that works?
The cat is one of the oldest symbols of criminal activity in the world. They don't only point out that someone's a thief, but they represent certain values associated with practice. For instance, the cat can represent the thief's accumulated fortune, their swift swiping skills, patience, prudence, rage, or even ruthlessness.
The Mexican Mafia is a prison gang that uses La Eme “The M” as their symbol. Prisoners who are members will often have a handprint tattoo with an M in the middle of it. If this type of imagery sounds familiar, it's because this symbolism directly relates to the members of MS-13.
Policemen and correctional officers can use "La Eme," a handprint with the letter M, the number thirteen, and anything related to identify members of the Latin Kings. It seems kind of counterproductive to have your whole criminal history and life of guilt for the world to see, but to each their own.
Lenin or Stalin
In the Soviet Union, prisoners would sometimes get a tattoo of Lenin or Stalin on their chest, thinking that a firing squad wouldn’t shoot at an image of their leaders. Unfortunately for those that got the tattoos, this was completely false, but at least the logic was there to bring hope.
A common way to depict the likenesses of Lenin or Stalin is the 3D syle. 3D prison tattoos try to fuse two pictures, images, or symbols together that creates a more interesting image with added dimension. For example, some prisoners will fuse Lenin with an eight-pointed star to enhance their messaging.
You would assume that a tattoo of the Grim Reaper is pretty self-explanatory, prison tattoos typically always have multiple avenues of meaning. It’s probably pretty clear that a prisoner with a hooded executioner tattoo has murdered someone, but it’s actually worse than that. This tattoo means they’ve killed a family member.
The tattoo can also symbolize a disdain for enemies or people who have betrayed you. When someone sees this tattoo, it can be quickly associated with the phrase "Death to traitors," hence the symbol of Death itself as an executioner. Not many of these tattoos give us the heebie jeebies, but this one certainly has that effect.
Madonna and Child
Prisoners with a tattoo of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus could infer several meanings. This tattoo can indicate that the prisoner feels like prison is their true home. Motherly figures, including the Virgin Mary, imply comfort, warmth, love, tenderness, and security; thus, the prisoner feels comfortable in the prison as with a mother.
This tattoo could also mean that they got involved in crime at a young age. The logic behind the imagery is that they lost their innocence at a young age and desire some kind of motherly embodiment, like a prison or a mentor, to guide them through the rest of their lives.
Prisoners with spiderweb tattoos on their elbows are often serving a long prison sentence. The tattoo is meant to represent decaying in prison and the passage of time, like the other Russian inspired tattoos we mentioned earlier. Prison sentence tattoos are popular because they are associated with the present moment for criminals.
Unfortunately, this seemingly innocent tattoo has a much darker history than just prison sentences. The spiderweb has roots in white supremecist movements that required the murder of a minority before donning the ink. Aside from murder, gangs, prison, and overall violence, the spiderweb can also have positive associations, but it's hard to ignore the racist roots.
From pistols to revolvers and machine guns, gun tattoos are a prominent theme in American prison related tattoos. The imagery of a gun, which obviously has a dangerous connotation, is associated with a few interpretations, including crimes of murder or even assassination. Because guns come in all shapes and sizes, they’re a popular choice for both clients and artists to have free reign in terms of design and meaning.
Gun imagery isn’t limited to a single area of meaning, however, because they are such popular weapons among Americans. Not only are they associated with danger and high levels of risk, but they can grant power to one person, represent self-defense to another, and symbolize one’s inner “fighting spirit” for another.
Before you can understand what the Blood Gang tattoos mean, you have to understand who the Blood Gang is and what they stand for. The Blood Gang is an American criminal group that originated in Los Angeles, California, on West Piru street against the spreading influence of the Crips, who were similarly involved in murder, drug dealing, and theft. And as gangs grew in popularity in the early 20th-century, so did identifying tattoos. Thus, Blood tattoos were born.
Some tattoos that identify members of the Bloods are MOB, which stands for “Member of Blood,” and a dog paw, which is typically accompanied by “dawg” scriptwork. “Piru” is also a popular choice as it’s derived from the gang’s original name “Compton Pirus” after their L.A. territory. Some members might also use the 13/13 cipher (splitting the alphabet and switching the order of letters) to spell out messages. For instance “Blood” would be written as “OYBBQ” with this code.
As much as there are prison tattoos related to the amount of time spent behind bars, there are tattoos from the other end of the spectrum depicting escapist ideology. Escaping from jail isn’t an easy task, which is why having escape-related artwork on your body is a sign of unmatched courage and defiance (or idiocy, depending on how you look at it).
Despite the themes of the tattoos surrounding “prison break,” they really don’t have a lot to do with actually breaking out of jail. A little misleading, right? Instead, these tattoos focus more on the ideas of anarchy and fighting the system as inspired by the TV show Prison Break! Most tattoos of this kind consist of imagery from the series rather than original concepts.
Black Guerilla Family
Like the Bloods, it’s helpful to know a little about the Black Guerilla Family AKA “BGF” gang before deciphering their body art. The BGF gang is primarily associated with African-American prison gangs who are politically motivated by Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism. Each of these ideologies hinge on the general concept of socialist revolution.
A common BGF symbol is of a powerful dragon attacking a prison tower; naturally, many members opt for this tattoo because it depicts the baseline beliefs of the gang: anarchy and revolution. This gang also uses numerical ciphers, such as 276 which is directly translated to their initials “BGF.”
Chains obviously aren’t specific to gangs or prison culture, but they are prominently featured on many prisoners with tattoos, especially those of African-American descent as a symbol of unity and integration. On top of representing cohesion, chain tattoos of any kind tend to point to rallying behind a similar cause.
While chains are objects that can have a dark and menacing association with slavery, oppression, and isolation, they can be revamped with images of a broken chain to represent freedom and overcoming the odds. Aside from prisoners, gang members can be seen with chain tattoos and are largely associated with the BGF and African-American gang members located in California.
Locks and Keys
A lock-and-key tattoo is commonly seen as a symbol for undying love, typically between couples, but they also have a more sinister association. Locks and keys are images that many members of the aforementioned Black Guerrilla Family sport on their bodies to help identify themselves within the gang for other members.
Similar to the chain tattoos, locks and keys have a few meanings but are primarily used to unify members and rally them behind a common cause; in the case of the BGF, socialist revolution is their cause. As for symbolism, these tattoos can be interpreted to mean loyalty, as with the couple tattoos, but can also be associated with oppression, secrecy, and escape.
Black gang tattoos blanket a large array of symbols, including animal imagery. However, many prison tattoos feature animals but aren’t necessarily associated with the BGF or Bloods. Many American prison tattoos are inspired by Native American culture given the history of the United States, which hinges on nature and sacred imagery.
Thus, the tattoos of Native American gangs have bled into the wider practice of prison tattoos. These tattoos are defined by depictions of nature that are sacred to indigenous groups, including birds, reptiles, tribal, and animals in general. They can be seen in many forms and styles, including color, black and grey, tribal, and traditional.
Crown and Rings
We already discussed the chilling reality behind the five-pointed crown, but what if they are placed on the fingers like rings? This prison tattoo trend originated in the 17th century in Ireland as a modification of the so-called Claddagh ring. Traditionally, the Claddagh ring represents love and royalty, but it’s been appropriated among prisoners to represent something more.
An inking of the crown and ring can symbolize the same things as the Claddagh such as loyalty and status, but they aren’t usually an individual pursuit. For instance, people in the same prison or members of the same gang will obtain this tattoo as a representation of camaraderie and aligned ideologies.
Eye For An Eye
The “eye for an eye” prison tattoo falls within the realm of scary imagery popular among prisoners and criminals. These tattoos in particular are especially eerie because of the artist's use of shading, shadows, and non-traditional lighting to make the tattoo scary rather than explicitly chilling images of vampires or blood.
Most artists attempting this design will settle on the same process that entails shading the eye at all corners, which essentially eliminates a single light source, and drawing attention to the whites of the eyes. These added shadows give the appearance of a sunken-in look that’s unsettling to observe and gives off an air of fiendish intentions.
Gott mit uns
'Gott mit uns' AKA 'God with us' is another tattoo with European origins. It was originally only present the form of a rallying cry of both the Russian empire and the Third Reich of Nazi Germany. A ‘Gott mit uns’ tattoo may be seen with other Nazi imagery including iron crosses.
From crosses to phrases speaking of God, these tattoos together are common among prisoners who want to symbolize their own aggression and defiance in the face of authority. Many choose for the cross to be depicted as hung on a chain around their necks and lying on their chest, but they won’t necessarily incorporate the “Gott mitt uns” scriptwork directly into the design.
Barbed Wire tattoos are one of the most common in Russian prisons and that’s with good reason – well, I mean as reasonable as gangs can be. The barbed wire tattoo doesn’t just have one meaning though. It can have several different meanings and sometimes all of them at once.
The barbed wire tattoo across the forehead means that the prisoner has a life sentence without parole. On other parts of the body, it can signify just how many years the person has served in prison. But to confuse matters, some youths are wearing these tattoos, even if they have never been to prison because they think they look cool.
Rose with Thorns
The Rose with thorns can be found in both men and women’s prisons. While people often believe that the rose has no significant meaning since it is used and repeated so often, that is not true. The meaning of the rose in prison can have very significant meaning for those who have served many years in prison.
Most often, a rose tattoo with thorns means that the person has served at least 18 years in prison. Both Russian and Asian gangs commonly wear these tattoos. So, in other words, it’s like an 18th anniversary present for yourself for doing something really bad. Good job! You’ve earned it!
The Crips have many tattoos associated with their name and many of them have to do with disrespecting their rival gang, the Bloods. For example, the 211 tattoo stands for “Blood Killer.” The 2 in that represents the letter B as it is the second letter in the alphabet and the 11 stands for K as it is the eleventh letter in the alphabet.
I know, so clever, right? Other crips tattoos have included the three-pointed or six-pointed crown. Then there are the letters IGC, which mean Insane Gangster Crip and Bad News Crip. They also have tattoos of the hands symbols they are known to use. These are just some of the tattoos in a gang with over 30,000 members.
Hells Angels is one of the most prominent motorcycle gangs in the country. Writer Hunter S. Thomas has described Hell’s Angels as inhabiting “a world in which violence is as common as spilled beer." The gang has a few different tattoos on display – the most common of which is the death’s head.
The death’s head represents the gang. Another tattoo, the 1%, signifies that the gang is a rebellious one – which goes without saying, but okay. It’s also a direct reference to the American Motorcycle Association which deemed them as outlaws. Another tattoo, “AFFA” stands for Angel Forever, Forever Angel.”
The Ku Klux Klan are one of the most notoriously hateful organizations out there, determined to preserve white supremacy and messages of hate towards other races across the United States. While they aren’t technically a gang, they often have tattoos that represent their actions that other hate groups have adopted as well.
One such image is that of the noose meant to symbolize the lynching of African American people that was so prominent in the first half of the 20th century. A lynching is defined as an “extrajudicial killing by a group.” These were commonplace after the reconstruction era following the Civil War.
The number 13 usually represents the Mexican Mafia for one simple reason: the 13 represents the letter M since it is the 13th letter in the alphabet. If there is a 7 in front of the 13 then that means they are from the Houston branch of the Mexican mafia.
Sometimes you may see three dots surrounding the 13 on a tattoo and that just means “mi vida loca” or in English, “my crazy life.” Some members of the Mexican Mafia may also have the image of an eagle eating an snake which is the national symbol of Mexico found on the country’s flag.
MS 13 - Mara Salvatrucha
A tattoo of MS 13 often represents the Mara Salvatrucha gang, which is one of the most notorious gangs in the world. They are an extremely violent gang – and yes, more so than others – and they even own their own prison. The MS 13 is just one of many tattoos you may find on a member.
Most commonly you will find a combination of MS and 13 but not just because 13 represents the letter M as with the case of the Mexican mafia, but rather 13 is kind of like a magic number for them and they will explain how 13 matches up with everything in respect to every part of their lives. You have to be there apparently, but trust us.
Barrio 18 is the rival gang of the Mara Salvatrucha. Operating in the western hemisphere, the Barrio 18 is a youth gang also known as the 18th Street Gang. It originated in Mexico but rose to prominence in Los Angeles. The number 18, much like the number 13 for the Mara Salvatrucha, is a magic number for the Barrio 18.
Again, all of the tattoos for the Barrio 18 have to match up to the number 18 somehow. It’s a little complicated, even in its simplicity, but it makes a lot of sense to them, so we won’t question it. We wouldn’t want to make them angry after all. Hopefully, they aren’t even reading this.
The Aryan Circle tattoo sets them apart from other white supremacist groups because it has their name right on the tattoo. When Aryan Circle is not all spelled out it will sometimes be represented by the initials AC. Paired with this they may have Celtic symbols which are common with the Aryan Brotherhood and the Aryan Circle.
Additionally, they have a few different tattoos included in the circle that best represent what the Aryan Circle is all about – besides being evil and hateful anyway. The swastika is an obvious nod to the Nazi party as the Aryan Brotherhood is a group of neo-Nazis. The lightning bolts, on the other hand, represent the Klan – meaning the Ku Klux Klan.
A tattoo of Adolph Hitler Hitler obviously represents white supremacy because if there is one man who symbolizes that idea it would have to be him. And really Hitler is the personification of all things evil. Thus, for someone to have a tattoo of Hitler is to show respect for Hitler and all the horrible things he did.
So, who would have such a tattoo? White supremacists of course. Gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood, Aryan Circle and Aryan Nation have all been known to have these tattoos. These groups hate minorities are dedicated to spreading their horrendous ideology and that of their buddy Adolph.
The PB or Proud Boys tattoo belongs to that of the Proud Boys gang. The Proud Boys are a neo-fascist, far-right group who have dedicated their time to fight leftists at various rallies. As you’ve probably seen on TV, these things can get pretty ugly and people get hurt all the time.
The organization is exclusively male and promotes political violence. They actively participated in the 2021 Capitol Riot and continuously dedicated to spreading misinformation. The group has been banned from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The name comes from the song, "Proud of Your Boy," from the 2011 Aladdin musical.
The Mongols Motorcycle Club is another prominent motorcycle gang that are sometimes known as the Mongols Nation or Mongol Brotherhood. The “club” is headquartered in Southern California and there are an estimated 2,000 members. However, they have members in 14 states total and internationally in 11 different countries.
Mongols have been convicted of crimes such as drug trafficking, motorcycle theft and conspiracy to commit murder, among other things. Efforts have been made to thwart the Mongols criminal activity such as Operation Black Rain but the gang ultimately continues to thrive.