A tattoo, by definition, is a form of body modification, made by inserting indelible ink into the dermis layer of the skin to change the pigment. People get tattoos for different reason but as a whole, it’s an personal expression — symbolizes sentiment, beliefs, experiences and just something they like.
Prison tattoos are no different. They have been around for a long time and they are worn by criminals to show their allegiance to their gangs, to represent their crimes, their regrets and also to reveal information about their lives. Here is some of the symbolism behind different prison tattoos from America, Russia, Mexico and more.
The ‘teardrop’ tattoo represents someone they have murdered or someone they have lost. When the teardrop is empty or drawn just as an outline, it represents attempted murder or plans for revenge by murder. ‘EWMN’ stands for “Evil, Wicked, Mean and Nasty” and is often seen on the knuckles of inmates. A ‘snake around the neck. tattoo symbolizes drug addiction while the ‘scarab beetle’ is worn as a symbol of good luck or to denote someone who was a pickpocket.
‘3 dots’ worn on the hand or near the eye and is arranged in a triangular manner. In some cases represents the Holy Trinity and is mostly seen on Hispanic inmates. ‘5 dots’, also known as quincunx, represents being imprisoned and is worn between the thumb and fore finger. The 4 outer dots are the walls of the prison and the inner dot is the inmate, like on a pair of dice.
Russian tattoos — the four symbols of the suits can be also seen on the knuckles and signifies luck or the gamble the prisoners took in life. The playing cards have the same meaning, but when worn by Russians, the symbols take on a different meaning. The clubs symbolize criminals in general, the spades is for thieves, the diamonds is forcefully inked on informants, and the hearts is for someone looking for a romantic fling within the prison, also applied forcefully sometimes.
Seen commonly on the elbows, the spider web represents time in the prison, caught behind bars and can also mean being caught up in the gang lifestyle. As a Russian tattoo, the spider web along with a spider in it is seen on the heads of the prisoners, and signifies drug addictions and repeat offenders. Each ring can also represent each year spent in prison, and a spider in the centre may mean dedication to the gang life, and a spider coming out of the web may represent a prisoner trying to reform himself.
Tattoos of political leaders like Lenin, Stalin, Marx, and Friedrich Engels were tattooed on the chest or vital organs because it was against the law to shoot images that symbolize the founding fathers of Russia. ‘MIR’ stands for peace or as an acronym for the Russian phrase “Only a firing squad can reform me”.
Domes of a Russian church may represent the number of years spent in jail or the different prison institutions they have been to. A ‘cat head’ represents a thief with a single cat signifying working alone, and several cats meaning being part of a gang. The word “KOT” which is Russian for cat is an acronym for the Russian equivalent of “native prison resident”.
‘Dream catchers’ are worn by Native Americans who have served time in prison. It symbolizes an Indian warrior, where each feather in it represents a crime committed against the white society and is often seen on the neck or skull.
Tattoos on the chest — a ‘cross’ is worn by very high ranking criminals, also known as the “Prince of Thieves”. A ‘tiger’ signifies aggression, especially towards authorities like the police. A ‘rose’ means that the wearer turned 18 in prison and a white dried rose means that they would rather die than lose their virtue.
Worn on both knees, ‘stars’ symbolizes not kneeling down to authority but when worn on the shoulders, the 8 pointed star represents a high-ranking thief or a criminal of authority. A ‘Madonna and Jesus’ tattoo has multiple meanings. It can be worn as a symbol to ward off evil, to show affiliation to a gang, or that the wearer has been a criminal since childhood. A ‘sailing ship’ tattoo signifies a yearning for freedom and may reveal a potential escapee and it can also mean that the wearer may be a thief who is constantly on the move.
A ‘clock with no hands’ represents doing time, a long sentence or a sentence of life without parole. ‘Barbed wire’ worn on the forehead can signify a life sentence without parole — each of the barbs can also symbolize the number of years spent in prison. ‘Ring’ tattoos can have different meanings, one with a tombstone can symbolize loss of a parent while in prison, while an inverted spade can mean someone who was imprisoned for delinquency. A ‘tombstone’ represents time served and it generally has the number of years (1990-2000) written in the stone. ‘Manacles’ on the leg represent a prison sentence of 5 years or longer. When bells are attached, it means the prison term was served in full while a broken manacle means the prisoner broke out of prison.
An ‘executioner’ can be a symbol for an assassin for hire or someone who follows the Thieves’ Code. When a ‘dagger’ is portrayed as going through the neck, it symbolizes someone who has committed murder in prison and is available for hire as an assassin. Other daggers symbolize a sex offender and is usually applied by force. A ‘goat’ tattooed forcefully, it symbolizes an informant while a ‘bow-tie on the neck’ is applied by force on a thief who has broken the code. When a dollar sign is added, it means that he was a safe-cracker or a money launderer.