#1 – "Cross On The Chest (Russia)"
In the Russian prison system, a tattoo on the chest symbolizes a ‘Prince of Thieves’. This is the highest rank a Russian convict can achieve, and these are generally worn by high-ups in the mob. Russian convicts have one of the most intricate tattoo cultures of any group of people. There are literally dozens of Russian criminal tattoos, each with it’s own distinct meaning. For example, a man with stars on his knees does not bow down to any authority. A man with a tiger on his chest is aggressive towards the police. A web with a spider in it symbolizes a drug addiction. Bells symbolize freedom while roses mean a wasted youth. A manacle represents a 5-year prison term, while a bear is reserved for professional safecrackers. The list goes on and on.
#2 – "Aryan Brotherhood"
The Aryan Brotherhood is the biggest white supremacist gang in the US prison system. They make up less than 1% of the inmate population but are responsible for 20% of murders in US prisons. Their tattoos are usually shamrocks and/or the letters ‘AB’ as well as nazi symbols such as the swastika and SS bolts. The prison system is partly to blame for the creation of racial gangs in US prisons. Until the 1960s prisons were racially segregated, so groups like the Aryan Brotherhood inevitably formed. The Aryan brotherhood’s illegal activities include drug-trafficking, inmate prostitution, and murder-for-hire. They are also sometimes known as Alice Baker, the One-Two, or The Brand. You may have seen depictions of the Aryan Brotherhood in the popular film, American History X.
#3 – A.C.A.B
ACAB is an acronym very commonly found inked on the bodies of British prisoners. It stands for All Cops Are Bastards. Some with the tattoo claim that ACAB stands for ‘Always Carry A Bible’, but it’s widely believed that these are just people who regret their decisions or are trying to make a good impression. It seems like it must make things easy for the cops in England, having all of the criminals self-identify with this tattoo. It is often found on the knuckles. These days many British youths who have never gone to prison have ACAB tattoos to signify their willingness to go to prison for their crew or gang.
#4 – "EWMN"
EWMN stands for ‘Evil, Wicked, Mean, Nasty.’ This does not represent affiliation with any prison gangs, but it simply represents the general disposition of some prison inmates. The history of knuckle tats goes way back. They were first popularized by the 1955 movie ‘The Night of the Hunter.’ In the movie, Robert Mitchum plays a sociopath preacher with the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on his knuckles. Many criminals associated with the character and also got love and hate tattoos on their hands. There are lots of other variants now, like ‘Rock/Roll’ or ‘Stay/Down’.
#5 – "Playing Cards"
Playing cards or suits of the deck general indicate an inmate who likes to gamble. This applies to gambling games in prison as well as in the more general sense: someone who views life as a gamble. In Russian prisons, each suit of the deck of cards has it’s own meaning. The spade symbolizes a thief, while clubs symbolize criminals in general. The diamonds are reserved for stoolpigeons and informants, and this tattoo is usually applied by force. The heart symbol represents someone who is looking for a romantic partner in the prison. This is another one that may be forcibly applied.
#6 – "MS13"
Anytime you see someone with a tattoo of ‘MS13’ or just ‘MS’ or ’13’, this represents the Mara Salvatrucha gang from El Salvador. The tattoos could be anywhere, but it’s very common for MS-13 members to have identifying tattoos on highly visible areas like their face, neck, and/or hands. La Mara Salvatrucha was started in the Los Angeles area by El Salvadoran immigrants. There are now MS-13 chapters all over the United States and even some in Canda. They have over 70,000 members and are known as one of the most brutal gangs in America. Their illegal industries range from dealing drugs to child prostitution. The US Treasury has even listed MS-13 as Transnational Criminal Organization! If you were wondering where they got their name, ‘La Mara’ is the name of a street in San Salvador and the Salvatrucha were an army of guerrilla fighters in the El Salvadoran civil war.
#7 – "La Eme"
"La Eme" or, ‘The M’ is the symbol of the Mexican Mafia. The Mexican Mafia is one of the largest and most ruthless prison gangs in the US. They are allied with the Aryan Brotherhood gang, who have a common enemy in Nuestra Familia. The Mexican Mafia is one of the most powerful gangs in the prison system, their activities extend to thousands of inmates. There are also lots of member and associates of La Eme outside the prison walls. Despite the name of ‘Mexican Mafia’, La Eme was not started in Mexico, but rather by Mexican-Americans incarcerated in American prisons. La Eme is a Sureño gang, belonging to a large affiliation of hispanic gangs in Southern California. There are many Sureño gangs, but when Sureños enter prison, they are generally all under the influence of the Mexican Mafia
#8 – "Norteños"
Norteño tattoos represent the Neustra Familia gang, which is associated with hispanic gangs in Northern California. Their tattoos include the word Norteño, Nuestra Familia, their sombrero symbol, the letter N, or the letter 14, symbolizing the 14th letter of the alphabet (you guessed it, N.) The Norteños are rivals of the Sureños, hispanic gangs based in Souther California. The unofficial piding line between the two is in Delano, California. There are many Sureño and Norteño gangs on the outside, but in prison it’s only The Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia, who are bitter rivals. Norteños mainly get their income from smuggling and distributing cocaine, heroine, and meth. They identify themselves with red bandanas.
#9 – "The Clock With No Hands"
A tattoo of a clock with no hands is one of the subtler prison tattoos you might come across. It means ‘doing time’ and is representative of a long prison sentence. Prison inmates have an interesting view of time, especially those serving long sentences. Prisoners view time as somewhat meaningless, which is what this tattoo is meant to represent. Prisoners will often choose not to count the days they are in prison. The clock tattoo can come in a few forms, it can be the face of a wall clock or a grandfather clock. Sometimes the tattoo is even done as a wristwatch, straps and all. Clocks in general are a popular tattoo and they don’t all represent prison life: always look to see if the clock has hands.
#10 – "Five Dots"
Don’t confuse this one with the three dots tattoo. The five dots, sometimes known as the quincunx, represents time done in prison. The four dots on the outside represent the four walls, and the dot on the inside represents the prisoner. The five dots is actually an international prison tattoo; it is common among both American and European prison inmates. The five dots are typically tattood on the prisoner’s hand between the thumb and forefinger. Five dots on other parts of the body can have a different meaning. For example, an association with the People Nation gang. People Nation is a Chicago-based gang who’s symbols include the five-pointed star, the five-pointed crown and the five dots.
#11 – "Three Dots"
The three dots tattoo is a very common prison tattoo that symbolizes ‘mi vida loca’ or ‘my crazy life.’ It doesn’t symbolize any particular gang, but rather the gang lifestyle. It’s typically found on the hands or around the eyes. The three dots tattoo can also carry some religious significance, representing the holy trinity. Dot tattoos are often done using the stick-and-poke method. This is a home-made tattoo procedure that involves very rudimentary tools, like a pencil or a sewing needle. Almost any sharp objects can be used, and it’s often whatever the inmates can get their hands on.
#12 – "The Five-Point Crown"
The gold crown may seem like a fun, decorative tattoo. But if it’s got five points on it, it is likely a prison tattoo. The five-point crown is a symbol of the Latin Kings gang. The Latin Kings are one of the biggest hispanic gangs in the US, they are based out of Chicago. The crown tattoo will often be accompanied by the letters ALKN, which means Almighty Latin Kings Nation. The crown has five points because the Latin Kings are an affiliate of the People Nation gang, which is represented by the number 5. Latin Kings have a huge presence both in and out of prison, and they’re roots go back to the 1940’s. Other details of the crown, such as the colors of the jewels in the points, can have a whole other level of hidden meanings.
#13 – "The Teardrop"
One of the most widely recognized prison tattoos is the teardrop. But the meaning of the teardrop varies geographically. In some places a teardrop represents a long prison sentence, in other places the teardrop represents that the bearer committed a murder. Sometimes the teardrop is empty. This can symbolize an attempted murder, or that one of the inmate’s friends was murdered and that they are seeking revenge. Rappers and other celebrities have popularized teardrop tattoos, which has led to many non-convicts getting the prison tattoos just for the ‘hard’ look it creates. If you are considering getting a teardrop tattoo, be warned: If you go to prison for the first time while sporting an unauthentic prison tattoo, you will make a lot of enemies, real fast.
#14 – "The Cobweb"
Cobweb tattoos have become very popular these days with people who were never convicts, but the cobweb is most definitely a prison tattoo. People sometimes get cobwebs to symbolize a lengthy term in prison. The symbolism of the cobweb is the association with spiders trapping prey and criminals being trapped behind bars. This tattoo is commonly found on the elbow because it also represents a lot of time with your elbows on the table. I.E. you’ve been sitting in prison doing nothing for so long that a spider is weaving a cobweb on your elbow. Convicts also often get the cobweb tattooed on their necks as well. If you see a multi-colored web, it’s probably not a prison tat; prison tattoo artists rarely have access to colored ink.
#15 – "1448"
The numbers 1488 can be found on the tattoos of white supremacist/nazi inmates. 14 or 88 on their own can also be used. This can create confusion, as the Nuestra Familia gang also uses the number 14 in their tattoos. In the case of white supremacists, the 14 represents 14 words. The 14 words are a quote by nazi leader David Lane: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children" The 88 is shorthand for the 8th letter of the alphabet twice, HH, which represents Heil Hitler. These tattoos can be found anywhere on the body, it doesn’t have to be on the forehead, like this gentleman is displaying. Ladies, we hear he’s single . . .