Prison Tattoos

Benna Crawford

Prison tattoos symbolize toughness or refusal to accept authority. This particular type of ink depicts gang symbols, racist signs, murders committed, or time served. Understand the messages and meanings before you permanently advertise them on your skin.

Rough-Cut Prison Tattoos

A prison tattoo bears little relation to the neat, sanitary process that happens in a licensed tattoo shop. Differences include the following:

  • Prison ink is applied with home-made needles and tattoo guns.
  • Sharpened paper clips, a staple or a bit of metal guitar string makes an effective "needle." An empty ballpoint pen holds the needle and serves as the grip.
  • A jerry-rigged "tattoo gun" is a device connected to a small motor which makes it move up and down like a professional instrument. Melted plastic, a pen, burned Styrofoam or whatever else the prisoners can find provides the ink for the color.

If you are interested in getting a symbolic or prison-style tattoo, you should first consider getting one from a licensed and regulated shop and artist. In prison, you don't have a choice, and the probability of scarring or infection is a real one. Out of prison, individual can imitate the images and symbols without taking on the risk.

Symbols and Meanings

Prison tattoos have multiple interpretations that vary by prison and by culture. If you're choosing a prison-style tattoo, make sure it doesn't have a meaning you don't intend. Research information about racist symbols and their meanings at a reputable website such as the website of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization dedicated to stopping bigotry or the Info.PublicIntelligence.net, a resource on tattoo meanings provided by the Canadian Border Service Agency.

Earnie Grafton/U-T San Diego/zReportage.com/ZUMA

Gang and Racist Beliefs

Many prison tats represent racist beliefs, gang affiliation or violence.

  • Double lightning bolts: This is a symbol borrowed from Nazi Germany.
  • The number 88: "H" is the eighth letter of the alphabet. Double 8's stand for "Heil Hitler."
  • Teardrops: In some places, a teardrop means the wearer has killed someone. It may also mean he or she has lost a close friend or family member.
  • Gang names and symbols: Some inmates get the name of their gang inked on their bodies in ornate lettering. Alternatively, they opt for a more secretive symbol of the gang. Gang symbols take the form of the broader "family" or the specific crew or "clique" the inmate runs with.
  • Numbers: Inked numbers are another way of displaying gang affiliation on the inside. A number sometimes represent the area code a prisoner comes from. The number 13 stands for the letter "M" (the 13th letter of the alphabet) and is either a reference to marijuana use or to a street gang called MS13.
  • Dots: Three dots, on the hand or even on the face, signify "mi vida loca" (my crazy life), and generally link the wearer with a gang lifestyle. The dots, on the hand or at the corner of the eye, also represent the Holy Trinity. Five dots, a quincunx, represent time served in prison -- four dots are the prison walls and the fifth dot, inside, is the prisoner. Five dots also refers to a Chicago-area gang called People Nation. The quincunx is inked into the top of the hand between the thumb and index finger.

Jail Time

Some prison tattoos show how long the wearer has been incarcerated.

  • Chains and locks: This type of tat represent loss of freedom.
  • Hourglasses: An hourglass symbol stands for "doing time."
  • Clock: A clock without hands is another prison tattoo that represents "doing time." It is meant to represent the nearly endless stretches of time that pass when one is locked up.
  • String of numbers: A string of numbers may be the inmate's prison I.D.
  • Spider webs: Tattoos of spider webs have a wide variety of meanings. A tattoo cobweb, like a real one, indicates the passage of time. A cobweb with a spider represents drug addiction -- being "trapped" or "caught."
  • Ships: On a prisoner, a ship tat refers to a sense of adventure and a love of broader horizons that puts prison authorities on alert. Ships tats can be advertisements that prisoners are actively seeking an escape plan.

The Toronto Star/ZUMA Press)

Russian Prison Tattoos

Russian prison tats have become the subject of some interest in recent years. Unlike American tattoos that may vary from one block to another, Russian prisons have a very specific code regarding meanings.

  • Barbed wire: A common tattoo for the forehead, barbed wire indicates the wearer has received life without parole.
  • Baby Jesus and Mary: This tattoo is worn by lifetime thieves to indicate they have been criminals since childhood.
  • Daggers: This type of tattoo is sometimes forcibly inked on sex offenders by other inmates.
  • Occupational tattoos: In the world of the Russian prison system, a cross or a cat means one is a thief while an executioner denotes one who commits murder for hire.

Safety Issues

Although many prisoners get tattoos without any complications, prison tattoos can be dangerous.

  • Sterilizing the equipment is difficult or impossible; skin infections are a common risk of unsterilized equipment. The person giving the tattoo may not understand how critical sterilization is. More important, deadly diseases such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS can be passed from one prisoner to another when needles are re-used.
  • Legitimate tattoo shops use special inks that will not irritate the skin and are not likely to cause allergic reactions. The makeshift inks used in prison tattoos may not be safe; they can cause damage to the skin and permanent scarring. They can also contain chemicals that are dangerous.

Appearance

The makeshift equipment used in prison doesn't always allow for the precision of a professional tattoo, and the work is often done by someone without a lot of experience. This accounts for the rough images found in prison ink. Placing the ink too deep gives the tat a raised surface and can cause scarring. Crooked lines and crude designs are hallmarks of most prison tats.

However, some feel there is beauty behind bars as well. A number of prison-based tattoo artists are quite skilled. In fact, the style of tattooing called "fineline" is believed to have originated in prisons. The style relies on thin lines, made with single needles, to create detailed, realistic-looking drawings that are meaningful. Talented prison artists create shading, copy photographs and ink names, or phrases in a variety of fonts.

A prison tat typically has only one color - most often blue or black, because those are the easiest colors to make. If someone in the prison is able to smuggle in real tattoo ink, multi-colored tats are possible.

Pictures of Prison-Style Tattoos

There aren't many online galleries for this type of tattoo. A web search will turn up individual pictures or small photo collections. Some interesting ones are:

  • The Marked Men article published in the Blue Review has a rich history and many detailed photos of prison and gang related tattoos.
  • Tattoo Journal has a gallery featuring 50 photos of prison-style tattoos.
  • Prison Prep 101's prison tattoo field guide shows close up photos of prison-done tattoos, along with their meanings.

Getting a Prison-Style Tattoo

Prison tattoos have their fans - and not all of those have been incarcerated. The tats lament a lifestyle that feels like a prison, show an historic appreciation for prison art, or reveal an affinity for the look. Before you rush out to get one, remember that it will be permanent - and not everyone you encounter will be hip to your ironic or appreciative gesture. You could be mistaken for an ex-con, give potential friends' pause, or lose a job opportunity, based on your embrace of prison style. That tat could be really cool, however, give it more than a passing thought before you roll up your sleeve or bare your back.

Prison Tattoos