The tradition of tattooing goes back centuries in many cultures. Most people want to get a tattoo with some symbolism or a special meaning to them if not just for aesthetic reasons. Prison tattoos all have a deeper meaning behind them and it seems like there is a specific tattoo for every situation or occasion for any criminal. Some tattoos can signify murders committed and others the length of time spent in jail. Here are 40 of them!
Find Out the Real Meaning Behind the Most Popular Prison TattoosPublished 7 months ago
The teardrop tattoo is arguably one of the easiest to see as it is on an individual’s face. Most often it will be placed underneath the person’s eye so that it looks like a tear is falling from it. There are many meanings to this tattoo these days. In different countries or cultures, the symbolism can vary greatly.
While it can simply show that a person did time behind bars, it can also signify that the wearer was sexually assaulted during their incarceration. The teardrop can also mean that they have killed someone or attempted to do so.
Another popular gang tattoo, especially amongst the ‘Latin Kings’ from California, is the crown with five points. The Latin Kings is one of the largest Hispanic hangs in the U.S. When they get inked with this tattoo, it will often be with the letters ALKN. This is an acronym for Almighty Latin Kings Nation.
The tattoo will usually be worn on the back or neck, especially by any ‘kings’ who have been incarcerated. The five points symbolize the People Nation Gang who is associated with the Latin Kings and is also represented by the numeral five. The crown tattoo can also represent the safety and loyalty of the crown wearer.
What may simply appear as lightning bolt tattoos to us, have a much deeper and more evil meaning in prison. Also called Cracker Bolts, these tattoos and also other symbols like swastikas and Valknuts are usually worn by white supremacist groups like the Nazis.
While they show support for racial purity, they are also sometimes awarded to white gang members for assaulting other races. This symbol was derived from the SS (Schutzstaffel) of Nazi Germany that was lead by Heinrich Himmler.
Some of us may find clowns funny while others may be terrified of them (especially after the movie IT). The clown tattoos found amongst prisoners are usually depicted as a happy face and a sad or crying one. As you may guess, this tattoo is not meant to be funny. They are likely to represent one of many opposing situations like ‘laugh now, cry later’, ‘my happy life before and my sad life now’ or ‘play now, pay later’.
On the other hand, if you ever find yourself in Brazil, be aware that this tattoo has a very different meaning in this country. A clown tattoo is a declaration that you have killed a cop in Brazil, so perhaps be aware not to insult somebody if you happen to have an innocent tattoo of a clown.
Most of us have heard of the Hell’s Angels. They are a worldwide motorcycle club and the members usually ride Harley Davidson bikes. They consist of 3000 to 3600 members in 59 countries, so they are by far the largest such club in the world. They have long been suspected by authorities to be running a crime syndicate within their club.
The tattoo saying “Angel Forever, Forever Angel” is usually perceived as a tattoo belonging to a Hells Angels member, especially in prison. Be warned though – if you get an “AFFA” tattoo without being part of the Hells Angels, there could mean big trouble if you ever cross paths with a real member of this motorcycle gang.
If you have ever watched an episode of Prison Break, you will have noticed that the main character is pretty much covered in tattoos. In the series, the tattoos conceal the inmate’s escape plan for himself and his brother. In real life, tattoos showing prison breaks are a way of depicting a courageous demeanor and possibly that they plan to escape.
Inmates who are brave enough to have such tattoos demand a certain amount of respect from most of the other prisoners, but perhaps keeping it a bit more low-key would be a better idea!
Most, if not all prison tattoos that are numbers, have a specific meaning behind them. In this case, the number 14 leads us to the 14th letter of the alphabet, namely the letter ‘N’. The Latino Kings, also known as the Norteno gang, can often be seen wearing this number.
As you could possibly guess, the white supremacists are not a big fan of this tattoo as it symbolizes a race other than themselves, so many prison fights are caused by it.
The spider web tattoo comes in second place, losing in popularity only to the infamous teardrop. It has been a symbol of incarceration for decades and like the teardrop can show that the wearer has spent time behind bars. It seems to be showing how one can be trapped in prison for years and the tattoo is mostly worn on the elbow. Sailors apparently also used to get this tattoo in earlier times as it represented their long wait to go home.
The spider’s web is also much liked by white supremacist convicts. Some of these groups require an inmate to kill a minority before they could earn the honor of wearing this symbol, which has understandably resulted in a very negative connection to the spider’s web in ink. In modern times, it is becoming more popular amongst civilians and the real meaning behind it is forgotten.
Most of us would be delighted to see a four-leaf clover as it signifies luck. The shamrock or also called ‘the rock’ tattoo has nothing to do with Irish folklore or luck. This tattoo might also be accompanied by the letters AB or the number 666 (the mark of the beast).
The shamrock is worn by members of gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood. As with most other white supremacist groups, they like to identify themselves with specific tattoos and symbols.
The barbed wire tattoo first became popular amongst war prisoners in the Second World War. From there it progressed to prisoners and criminals. Amongst the convict community, it symbolizes time spent behind bars with every barb on the wire representing one year.
Whilst this tattoo is especially popular with Russian prisoners, some civilians also find it appealing. It can look mean and hardcore, but they probably don’t know the actual meaning behind it…
The five dots tattoo has different meanings in different cultures, but it always consists of five dots arranged in a ‘quincunx’ (like in the picture) and is usually placed between the thumb and index fingers on the outside of the hand. Commonly, the five dots tattoo means that an individual is busy serving a prison sentence or that they have served one (since tattoos last forever!).
In this meaning of the tattoo, the small dot in the middle represents the prisoner while the four dots around it symbolize the prison walls that trap the individual inside. An interesting fact is that Thomas Edison had this tattoo on his forearm, but we assume it had a different meaning in his case!
The acronym EWMN that some inmates might choose to have tattooed on them stands for the words evil, wicked, mean, and nasty. People, especially prison guards, will quickly be able to identify just what kind of person they are dealing with when they see this. A prisoner with this tattoo is unlikely to hold back.
The EWMN tattoo is not specific to any gang, it is a personal choice and could be worn by anybody. Even members of opposing gangs may end up having this same tattoo. Most often, the four letters will be tattooed across the four knuckles you can see when somebody makes a fist. Ouch.
The number 1488 as a tattoo is not referring to a year… 14/88 is a reference to 14 that formed a two-part slogan by American white supremacist (and Nazi leader) David Lane and the 88 symbolizes two letters. David Lane's 14-word quote was, "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children because the beauty of the White Aryan woman must not perish from the earth."
As for the second part of the number, the 88, each eight is referring to the 8th letter of the alphabet, ‘H’. The ‘HH’ is short for ‘Heil Hitler’ which in English means Hail Hitler. Hopefully, all Nazis and their beliefs will become extinct soon.
The crown ring tattoo is not to be confused with the previous crown tattoo. It has a crown but it's tattooed on an inmate's finger to look like a ring. It was adapted from the Irish Claddagh ring which is made with the shapes of hands, a heart, and a crown to symbolize friendship, love, and loyalty respectively.
Members of the same gang or inmates who develop a close bond will get this tattoo. It will serve as a symbol for friendship and their bond in brotherhood. It can also represent faithfulness and affection toward the other person or people with this same tattoo.
Epaulets are usually worn by people in uniform like police officers, pilots, and captains. They are used to signify rank and it is not much different with these ornamental shoulder tattoos that look like epaulets. They are mostly seen in Russia and they symbolize that a prisoner is part of the ‘Thieves in Law’ which is another name for the Russian mob.
As with epaulets, these tattoos will have different designs to depict the status of the wearer. The tattoo can show if a member is a captain, lieutenant, or colonel within the mob. If the person has killed somebody, they will usually have a skull as part of the shoulder tattoo.
Contrary to the first impression one might get from the image of a cross, these large cross tattoos do not have anything to do with Christianity or any other religion. Even this cross is a symbol of gang-related status. The larger in size the tattoo is, the higher that person’s rank in the gang.
Like some other tattoos and symbols, this one also originated in Russia and it’s often displayed on the person’s chest. As some Russian gangsters became incarcerated in different countries, the tattoo and its meaning spread and are now found all around the world.
In most places, this tattoo has quite a simple meaning. If a person has cards tattooed, it is usually a sign that they like to gamble. They may be gambling with games or gambling with life. It could well be the reason why they found themselves in prison.
In Russia, however, each suit has a different message and meaning. The clubs symbolize general criminals while spades are for thieves. Informants will have a card of diamonds while a card of hearts means that the wearer is looking for love in prison.
If you come across one of these tattoos, you may want to take a wide berth. If a prisoner has a dagger tattooed in their neck, it is a message that they have murdered before and will willingly do so again. They may even be advertising that they are available to hire for this specific service.
If the tattoo shows drops of blood, it can be an indication of how many individuals they have murdered. Alternatively, the dagger can symbolize the death of the inmate (figuratively) because of all the time spent in prison.
Some people might get a picture of their girlfriend or wife tattooed on them, but when a prisoner has a tattoo of a woman it has a whole different meaning. These tattoos are once again adopted from Russian culture.
An inmate with tattoos of women is sending the message that they are officially members of the infamous Russian mafia. These markings will usually be seen on a prisoner’s chest. Some inmates may choose to tattoo a picture of a rose instead, but it has the same message as having a woman in ink.
The MS-13 tattoo, which can also sometimes be seen as only MS or 13, is a marking to show that the wearer belongs to the Mara Salvatrucha gang. This gang is originally from El Salvador and the number 13 symbolizes the accepted age a member can join at.
The MS-13 tattoo will most often be seen on a prisoner’s face, neck, or hands where it is highly visible. It serves as a sign to protect its members from other gangs and most commonly consists of the colors blue and brown with black shading.
In the USSR in the 1900s, many prisoners tattooed portraits of either Lenin or Stalin on their chests. They believed (or hoped) that this could prevent them from being shot at by a firing squad. They hoped that there was a chance that the guards would not want to shoot at the image of their leaders.
Unfortunately, their works of art in ink did not work according to plan… The guards didn’t end up shooting at the images of their leaders but had the prisoners turn around and shot them in the back of their heads instead.
Tattoos of chains were popular in past years to show situations of repression, enslavement, or solitude experienced by the wearer. Since these are all common experiences when somebody is incarcerated, the chain tattoo is very popular amongst convicts in jail.
These days, this tattoo can also have another meaning. Like the barbed wire tattoo, some people ink themselves with chains to show that they were behind bars but now have freedom again. They can also portray the number of years spent in prison with the number of chain links in the tattoo. Is it a competition to see who has the most?
Under usual circumstances, getting a tattoo of a clock can represent a variety of ideas from mortality, existence, and stability to life and death. In prison, the meaning becomes very different… Prisoners serving a life sentence or criminals doing so much time that it is basically their whole life will get this tattoo.
When the clock has no hands, it symbolizes that the wearer has lost their grip on the track of time. While some people may get their piece inked as a regular wall clock on their body, others may have it done on their wrist to mimic wearing a real watch.
To some people, a key may represent unlocking potential and it is a symbol in some cultures of coming of age at your 21st birthday. In prison, a key tattoo doesn’t have any such meaning, nor will it unlock anything positive. A gang called the Black Guerrilla Family uses the key as a symbol to identify their members.
The Guerilla Family gang became a criminal organization in later years, but they started with good intentions as they initially fought for the rights of African-Americans. The key represents the gang as the key to solving the problems of African-Americans.
The three dots tattoo is a very common prison tattoo that shows that a prisoner is most likely part of a gang. The dots mean ‘mi vida loca’ which translates into English as ‘my crazy life’. While represents gang life, it doesn’t specify which gang an individual may be part of. These tattoos are usually created using a poke method that only requires very basic equipment - all pretty crazy indeed!
This simple tattoo is very popular amongst Mexican mafia members. The Surenos and Nortenos are the two divisions within the Mexican mafia and they also have their own unique tattoos between them, but both counterparts can be seen with the above tattoo frequently.
In northern Mexico, you can find a genre of music called Norteno, but if you see an inmate or ex-inmate with a tattoo that reads Norteno, it is referring to something completely different. The Nuestra Familia gang is a Hispanic gang from Northern California and this is their marking.
They are one of the most ruthless prison gangs and since they have a common enemy, they are affiliated with the infamous Aryan Brotherhood too. Sometimes, instead of the word ‘Norteno’, inmates will only tattoo the letter ‘N’ or the numeral ‘14’ and at other times even the Roman number ‘XIV’ to refer to the letter ‘N’.
Cats are patient and can hunt silently, which means that they make successful thieves. Maybe that is why the cat, especially one with a hat like ‘Puss in Boots’, is a popular symbol for thieves in Russian culture.
Felines are also usually quite stubborn and don’t like the idea of authority – even more reason for cats to be thieves’ mascots. Sometimes, Russian inmates will just get the word ‘KOT’ tattooed which means (you guessed it) 'cat' in the Russian language.
The expression ‘an eye for an eye’ has a bit of a sinister ring to it. It implies that one should get revenge that is equal in severity to the way you were wronged by somebody. For convicts, this saying holds a lot of meaning and they abide by it.
There is no evidence to support that this is the theme behind the eye tattoos in prison, but many inmates wear them. In this picture, it looks like the tattoo artist didn’t hold back with his design to the expression.
Some criminals may be seen with tattoos of the Madonna feeding her child or with other interpretations of Mother Mary and Jesus on their bodies. The meaning behind the Madonna and child tattoo can be that the inmate feels at home and comfortable in jail. In this example, the inmate is the child and the jail is their mother (Madonna).
In another example, when an individual is incarcerated from a young age, they are called the ‘children of prison’ and may get this tattoo to show it. A whole different reason to get the tattoo may be to ward off evil energy. Some prisoners believe that this tattoo will protect them from evil beings.
Tattooing a firearm is most popular with American prisoners. It is usually a sign to announce that the wearer has committed a crime involving firearms. Extreme criminals are known to get weapons inked on them, so it is a sign of a dangerous inmate as guns are unpredictable and tough to handle.
If a firearm is an inmate’s ink of choice, they have a wide selection to choose from. With all the different guns out there, some creations by tattoo artists are very creative but don’t forget the real meaning behind them.
In most cultures around the world, different animals symbolize different characteristics or meanings in life. In the east, they have a different animal for every year that you are born and in the western zodiac they also have many animals for different months people are born.
Prisoners also have certain meanings behind different animals. The meanings of the animals can differ from one gang to the next. Often, a wolf will show leadership, bulls, like Taurus, symbolize the spirit to fight and lions usually symbolize somebody powerful.
In Russian prison culture, a cathedral, locally called a Kremlin, is usually tattooed by a convict who has finished their sentence in prison. An ex-convict who served many years in prison will have more domes as part of their church or cathedral.
Since these tattoos are usually quite large in size, they are most commonly seen on larger areas of an individual’s body like their chest or back, but they can be inked anywhere a person desires.
The three interlocking triangles that make the Valknut was an important symbol in ancient Norse mythology. Also known as the ‘knot for those fallen in battle’, it was a symbol that the Vikings used to honor their comrades who were lost in battle. The Valknut became popular amongst prisoners as a tattoo during the last two decades.
The neo-Nazis and other white supremacist prison gangs use the Valknut as a symbol of brotherhood behind bars. In other belief systems, the three interlocking triangles symbolize reincarnation since they represent the three interlocking circles of the different dimensions of the world.
As with the cat, this star (also called the thief star) is a symbol worn by Russian thieves. The eight-pointed star has a long history of being part of the Russian Empire dating back to the time they had a Tsar.
If an inmate has these stars on their shoulders, it signifies their rank or authority within a criminal group. When they tattoo them on their knees, it is a message that the individual will not bend their knees to any person of authority, especially not police officers.
Skulls usually conjure images of horror and death. In prison, it doesn’t signify anything to do with murder or loss of life though. In prison, skull tattoos are a sign that the wearer is not afraid of prison guards. Prisoners have to earn their skulls and they can do so by challenging the authority of the prison wardens.
The SS had a skull as part of their uniform insignia, so skulls are also very popular as tattoos amongst the Neo-Nazi prisoners. These skulls can be seen all over the body and even on an individual’s face or neck.
When prisoners get tattoos of flowers, it’s usually not for romantic reasons. The most popular tattoos are usually tulips and roses. The symbolism behind a flower tattoo in prison is that the wearer was incarcerated before they were 18 years old. As with so many other previous tattoo examples, flower tattoos are also popular amongst Russian convicts.
Youngsters who are convicted are likely to end up joining a prison gang. If they have a tattoo of a flower, they have usually done so already. In Asian culture, some gangs also have flowers as tattoos to identify their members.
This tattoo will most likely always be worn by somebody with a shaved head. If that doesn’t look mean enough, the word ‘Skinhead’ will round it off well! Skinheads are almost always members of white supremacist gangs.
It looks like these white power gangs prefer to advertise their tattoos where they are most visible, like on their faces, necks, and heads. The word ‘Skinhead’ will often be accompanied by other tattoos to show their devotion to their gangs and beliefs.
The hooded executioner looks about as scary as the meaning behind this figure. You will usually find them on prisoners who have committed very serious crimes. The executioner will commonly be bearing an ax and it’s not just a sign that the wearer has committed a murder. It usually signals that a person has murdered more than one person from one family.
If a gang member is working with police against their other gang members, they could suffer death at the hand of one of their comrades who may then get the hooded executioner as a symbol of their revenge.
Spider tattoos are not to be confused with spider web tattoos, although they can also often be seen together. The spiders can have a variety of different meanings depending on where they are inked and how they are placed. The spiders will most often be on an inmate’s shoulder or elbow.
If a criminal is still active, his spider will be depicted as if crawling upwards. If a criminal has retired from his life of crime, his spider will be depicted as if crawling down. As mentioned before, the spider web is an indication of a prisoner’s time behind bars.