Prison Tattoos and Their Meanings

The gangster tattoo and the prison tattoo don’t need formal introductions. These phenomena are popular among gangs and in the prisons across the world. While gangster tattoo is used among members of same gang, prison tattoo is usually by inmates of prisons.

Among the members of gangs, the gangster tattoo is considered as the symbol of strong bond. It’s the fact that gang members are devoted to their fellows even more than their immediate family members. Devotion and loyalty toward the gangster group is the main spirit it’s represented.

On the other hand, prison tattoo came to light after Japanese started use of them in order to differentiate prisoners from general public after they were freed. Prison tattoo is also frequently used by groups such as bikers, gypsies, bandits, and circus artists.

The Coding System Of Prison Tattoos

When it comes to prison tattoos, some designs have been developed to symbolize specific meanings. In addition, many utilize certain codes that can actually be quite difficult to decipher and not easily recognized.

In North America, the following designs are commonly found in prison tattoos:

  • Three dots arranged as a triangle – This design is most commonly found between the prisoner’s forefinger and thumb. The design stands for “mi vida loca,” which means “my crazy life.”
  • Teardrop tattoo – This design is worn by the eye. It indicates the wearer has killed someone or that the person had a friend killed in prison.
  • Shamrock – This design is worn anywhere on the body and is often found on those belonging to the Aryan Brotherhood. In this case, the shamrock often also includes the number 12, with the 1 standing for “A” and the 2 standing for “B.”
  • Ace of spades – Worn anywhere on the body, this design is mostly worn by those belonging to either the Aco Town or Asian Boyz gang. The A, which is often placed in the middle of the spade, is meant to symbolize Asian while the spade symbolizes thievery.
  • The number 13 – This tattoo indicates membership with the Mara Salvatrucha 13 gang.
  • The number 14 – This tattoo indicates membership with the Nuestra Familia, which is a prison gang. This gang is affiliated with the Nortenos, a street gang.
  • Area codes – Many gang members use the area code to their neighborhood as a tattoo, though this can become outdated as area codes are changed.
  • Clock with no hands – Most commonly placed on the upper arm, this tattoo symbolizes “doing time.”
  • Spider web – Generally found on the elbow, this tattoo is used by white supremacists to demonstrate that they have severely injured or killed one of their “opponents.” The design is also commonly found on people that have been in prison.

Many of these prison tattoo designs have become popular with those that have never been in prison. Latino teenagers, for example, can often be found with the three dots tattoo. Many Vietnamese teenagers can also be found with a similar tattoo, though “toi khong can gi ca” or “I need nothing” is the meaning behind this tattoo.

Prison Tattoos Throughout History

The concept of prison tattoos is not a new one. In fact, there is evidence to show that prison tattoos were used in ancient Egyptian times. As with many of the tattoos worn by prisoners today, these tattoos also had a symbolic meaning. For example, king or pyramid tattoos were worn by those that were very dangerous, such as assassins, head bosses, and masterminds.

Prison tattoos are also commonly found in other parts of the world, including Russia and Britain. Similarly, many of the gangs that use tattoos to symbolize their membership have been around for over 50 years.

As tattoos become more and more common and are increasingly accepted in our society, the designs and symbols once reserved for “prison tattoos” are also becoming more frequently worn by the mainstream.

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