Many times these tattoos have their true meanings concealed within an often complex system of codes and symbolism in order to conceal their true meaning from authority figures and non-criminal civilians. Often these code systems are fairly complex and because of their nature they are not easily recognised by those outside of criminal circles.
These tattoos are often improvised, home made pieces and characterized by a bluish color and a blurred appearance due to the lack of instruments available to do more detailed work. The methods for administering the tattoos are varied and include improvising material for pigmentation from any number of prison available materials such as ashes from articles of clothing or paper.
The meanings of various gang and prison tattoos vary greatly in common interpretation and from place to place, and therefore they are difficult to properly define. Though some are fairly universal, such as a teardrop tattooed near the eye signifying that the bearer has at some time killed someone, while others are exclusive to certain regions.
One resounding similarity between most criminal cultures is that the wearing of unearned tattoos is a highly punishable offense, with discipline for the act ranging from the not so surgical removal of the tattoo by cutting away the skin to such extremes as death.
The two largest prison gangs in California employ tattoos symbolic of their gang affiliation as well as gang coluors to identify themselves. The Sureños, or Southerners, were the first such gang in the California prison system to employ gang colours and are often tattooed as well with the number 13 in either Roman or Arabic characters, or some combination thereof. The significance of the number 13 among this gang is that the letter M is the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, signifying La Eme or “The M”; The Mexican Mafia. Another interpretation of the number 13 is the letters L (12) and A(1), the hometown of the
The other of the largest prison gangs in the California Penal System is the Norteños, or Northerners, also referred to as Nuestra Familia (Our Family). They are based in Northern California and are bitter rivals to the Sureños due to a split in the 1960’s with the Sureños remaining heavily connected to the Mexican Mafia and the Norteños desiring to break all affiliation with La Eme. This particular gang is symbolized by the color red and the number fourteen.
Tattoos within the prison system, commonly known as “prison tats” are widely varied from society to society, country to country. From Ireland to Russia, complex systems of tattooing symbolism exist. In Ireland and Britain the acronym ACAB is often associated with the criminal underworld, most often the letters being tattooed across the fingers between the knuckle and first joint of the finger.
The specific meaning of this acronym varies from person to person, usually including either Always Carry A Bible or All Cops Are Bastards, the former obviously employed when the bearer needs to convey a bit more civil impression of themselves. This tattoo is sometimes expressed in a series of symbolic dots. In Britain especially, the Borstal Mark is a popular tattoo. It is an Indian ink dot symbolic of the juvenile detention centers in the United Kingdom of the same name. These are often applied during the bearers first imprisonment and are often considered a status symbol among criminals.
Russia and it’s criminal system has and has had for many years a remarkably complex and elaborate system of tattoo symbolism, with both the tattoo itself and the placement on the body of the bearer having significance in the interpretation of the tattoo. In many Russian gangs the initial tattoo placed upon a new member often incorporates a rose and is placed on the chest, for example. This symbol of a rose on the chest is also employed by the Russian Mafia quite frequently.
As well as symbolic brands and signs of affiliation and past accomplishments, tattoos can be involuntarily administered as a means to discipline and humiliate those who are deemed deserving of such punishment, such as those who fail to pay debts. These markings are often symbolic and easily interpreted by those within the criminal world.
In North America, there are a wide variety of tattoos with meaning in criminal circles. For example, tattoos of shamrocks and the symbolic employment of the number 12 are associated with the California based white supremacist organization The Aryan Brotherhood, the number one symbolizing the letter A and the number two meaning B. Of course, many people of Irish decent also have shamrock tattoos with no criminal intent whatsoever. The Aryan Circle, another white supremacist group, employs the number thirteen with the same alphabetical meaning.
The number thirteen may also indicate membership in the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), a Central American gang formed for protection against the more powerful Mexican gangs as well as the Mexican Mafia, La Eme. It is also common in America, particularly in California, for gang members to have the phone area code of their hometown tattooed on themselves.
The Yakuza, the Japanese equivalent of La Cosa Nostra in Italy, is famous for their tattooing practices which have their roots in the Bakuto, whom tattooed black rings around their arms for each crime that the committed. Members of the Yakuza often have large full back or even full body pieces done in order to signify their clan affiliations and a lack of willingness to conform to societal standards. A single full back piece in the typical style used by the Yakuza can require over one hundred hours to finish. Many public bath houses in Japan, in fact, will not allow people bearing any tattoos whatsoever to enter the establishment because of the negative association with the Yakuza.
It is clear that tattoos bear an important part in the lives on criminals and those affiliated with gangs. Through years of hard work and dedication, complex designs have been crafted to avoid being noticed by the general public but holding deep meaning in the criminal/gang underworld.