Do You Know About Gang Tattoos

The art of tattooing was once reserved for criminals and outlaws and was forced on them as a way for societies to “mark” them for their crimes. They would be ostracized and soon began to embrace the markings and added some of their own, in an attempt to further separate themselves from these societies. For example, British criminals sent to Australia were marked to symbolize their crime. They later camouflaged the marks by creating new ones over them to erase the stigma attached.

Gang tattoos are used by gang members to show loyalty and membership in a specific gang. They also reflect the gang member’s life choices and gang-related accomplishments, like their specialty areas and skills, various accomplishments and even convictions. Gang tattoos are not random; rather they’re sort of a secret code, usually only understood by the members of the specific gang. While tattoos are becoming increasingly popular with non-gang members, gang tattoos are considered badges of honor.

Gangs use various tattoo symbols to represent a badge – such as  a tear drop, or a spider web under the eye representing  prison time served. The meaning of gang tattoos have changed and evolved over the years. Tattooing their names in a large old English style font, on a curved baseline is popular.

One of the key reasons for not getting a prison tattoo – the health factor.  Often the needles are used repeatedly.  There are no means to sterilize any part of the machine.  Very dangerous. Although, I have to admit, I have seen tattoo work and it was surprisingly high quality. The artist had learned to work fast, under pressure, and still did beautiful work.

In a rare case of common sense, Canada started a pilot program that basically set up a tattoo parlor prison program. It not only taught inmates a trade,  had them using sterile needles with sterile conditions, which brought down HIV and other blood related diseases.  It seemed like a win, win situation. But word got out in the public and everyone had a fit and the program was discontinued. Heaven forbid we use some common sense.

Gang Tattoos in Various Countries

Britain and Ireland:

One of the most common tattoos integrated in the prisons of United Kingdom is A.C.A.B. A short form, the letters usually impressed in a manner that a letter features in between the knuckle and first joint of each finger. A.C.A.B. either stand for “All Coppers Are Bastards”, or “Always Carry A Bible”, depending on, who is asking and whether the bearer is trying to make a good impression. It was in the 1970 that the British Oi! Punk band popularized the phrase further, with a song based on the same.

A similar phrase A.P.A.B., meaning “All Pigs Are Bastards” was also in vogue, and was primarily used as a derogatory slang term for police officer. Though formerly used, criminals were seen to flaunt a dot on the left cheekbone, a sign of completing a sentence at Borstal, which was considered a status symbol. Another criminal tattoo was a “Borstal Glove” on the back of the hand.

North America:

Tattoos with three dots in the form of a triangle, found in between the thumb and forefinger, was one of the most prevalent generic tattoo in North America. The art usually stood for “mi vida loca” (“my crazy life”), or the three major connections of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The tattoo may or may not have a direct connection with the gangs. A similar type was adopted by the Vietnamese teenagers, under the interpretation of “toi khong, meaning “I don’t need nothing”.

Another variety was a teardrop at one of the eyes of the wearer. The tattoo was indicative of the fact that the wearer has killed someone, or a friend of theirs was killed in prison. Symbols aggression such as skulls, tattoos advertising a particular skill, or religious imagery, tattoos of a clock with no hands symbolical of phrase “until the end of time” (life sentence) are some of the other criminal tattoos found.


Russian criminal tattoos are highly expressive and when clearly studied, can reflect much about the personality of a person. Apart from the tattoos being symbolical, the place on which it is impressed can carry a lot of meaning as well. You would be surprised to know that flaunting a false tattoo is punishable by death in the criminal underworld. Distinctive by bluish shade, the tattoo is usually blurred, because of the lack of instruments to draw fine lines. Additionally, tattoos were also used to stigmatize and penalize individuals, within the criminal society.

Forehead tattoos are forced to humiliate the wearer and also caution people about him/her. In Russia, tattoos that are comprised of political or anti-authoritarian statements are tagged as ‘grins’ and are usually seen on the stomach region. The four suits of Russian criminal tattoo are spades (that signify “suit of thieves”), clubs (that stands for a “criminal” suit that represents a sword), diamonds meaning (the “chummy suit” i.e. stool pigeons and informers, this suit is usually forcibly applied) and hearts indicative of a sexual symbol.

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