Tattoos have a long and fascinating history on their own, but jail tattoos take it up a notch: despite the hard setting that these tattoos come from, many of them carry rich symbolism, often blending the esoteric with the practical, the shocking with the plain.
Jailhouse tattoos aren’t just for decoration, however: each tattoo carries a hidden meaning, whether it’s to show allegiance to a particular gang, an identifier as a follower of a specific (often racist) ideology, or to show off your criminal history.
Many of these jailhouse tattoos have crossed over to mainstream culture, although some people might be unaware of their origins. Here are some jailhouse tattoos and their hidden meanings:
Easily one of the most popular prison tattoos in popular culture, the teardrop tattoo actually has a less innocent meaning behind it. The meaning of teardrop tattoos can vary depending on the geography, bu they all have the same premise: it symbolizes murder.
A teardrop tattoo on the face means that the person has committed murder, while a teardrop outline represents attempted murder or, alternatively, it could also mean that the person has a friend who was murdered and that they are now currently seeking vengeance.
In some prisons, the meaning of teardrop tattoos differs depending on which side it is on. A teardrop tattoo on the left eye means that the person murdered someone in jail, while a teardrop tattoo on the right eye means the person lost a family or gang member to murder.
In recent years, it’s become an extremely popular tattoo for rappers and celebrities in an effort to play up their “gangster” image. However, be warned: veteran inmates are often very aggressive towards new inmates with teardrop tattoos, especially when they find out that it’s an aesthetic choice rather than as a symbol of a crime they’ve already committed.
Simple, subtle, but fairly poignant, the three-dot tattoo is a pretty common jailhouse tattoo that means “mi vida loca”, or my crazy life. Despite popular belief, it’s not actually the symbol of any one particular gang; it’s a representation of the gang “lifestyle” itself. Outside of showing one’s love for the outlaw life, the three-dot tattoo could also be a subtle religious tattoo, one that symbolizes the Holy Trinity.
The three-dot tattoo is usually found around the eyes, or on the hands near the base of the thumb, and unlike other jailhouse tattoos, the three-dot tattoo is most often created using the stick-and-poke method using makeshift tools.
The “MS13” or “MS” or “13” tattoos are representative of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, a notorious and extremely violent gang originating from Los Angeles by way of El Salvador. The MS13 tattoo can be found on any part of the body, but it is mostly tattooed on highly prominent places like the hands, neck, or even the face. The idea behind is that the person getting tattooed is proud of being part of Mara Salvatrucha, and is not afraid to make this affiliation known to both civilians and law enforcement.
Mara Salvatrucha is an extremely violent organization that has businesses all around the United States, El Salvador, and Canada. They mostly deal in drug trafficking, but have been known to head human trafficking operations and even child prostitution.
The five-point crown tattoo represents allegiance to the Latin Kings, one of the country’s biggest and most notorious Hispanic gangs. Based out of Chicago, the Latin Kings are an extremely organized gang that uses heavy symbolism in their rituals and hierarchy, and boasts tens of thousands of members from coast to coast.
The five-point crown tattoo us usually accompanied by the letters ALKN or ALKQN, which stands for Almighty Latin Kings (and Queens) Nation. This tattoo usually has either 3-points or 5-points, with the five-point crown being more common, thanks to their affiliation with the People Nation Gang, a loose confederation of Chicago gangs whose identifying marker is the number 5.
While the five-point crown tattoo shows people your affiliation with the Latin Kings, the gemstones (should there be any) on the crown represent an entire level of mystery altogether, with each gemstone representing a person’s rank, tribe, region, and other factors.
Usually seen on elbows or hands, cobweb tattoos are a classic example of jailhouse ink that symbolizes being behind bars for a really, really long time. The idea of placing the cobwebs on elbows or on hands is that it signifies sitting with your hands or elbows on a table for so long that a spider has woven a web on you. Symbolically, cobweb tattoos symbolize being “trapped” behind bars, the same way a spider traps its prey.
One thing to note, though: there are plenty of cobweb tattoos in popular culture that make use of multiple colors. These are not likely to be jailhouse tattoos, as tattoo artists in prisons rarely, if at all, have access to multiple colors of ink.
White supremacists use a variety of nazi symbols as tattoos, from the most common swastika and German eagle, to the lightning bolt and SS. However, some nazi symbols are less pronounced.
The “AB” tattoo stands for Aryan Brotherhood, one of the most violent prison gangs in the country.
Although the Aryan Brotherhood represents around 1% of the entire inmate population in the United States, they account for over 20% of gang-related deaths and murders in U.S. prisons. Having this symbol as an inmate can bring you huge benefits from the Brotherhood, but can make you a large and glaring target for non-White inmates.
Seemingly innocuous at first, 14/88 actually has a darker meaning: it’s used by neo-Nazis as a subtle indicator of their racist ideologies. The numbers can be used together, separately, or with a slash in the middle
The numbers have specific meanings: the 14 represents the 14-word slogan “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children” originally coined by David Lane, a White Supremacist who founded the terror organization The Order.
The 88 represents the 8th letter of the alphabet: H. Combined, they form HH, a shorthand for Heil Hitler. This tattoo can be found pretty much anywhere on the body.
Double Lightning Bolts
Double lightning bolt tattoos can have innocent meanings, but in the case of a prison tattoos, it’s a stylized version of the S.S., or the Schutzstaffel,the Nazi party’s premier paramilitary organization.
The Totenkopf is a specific iteration of the traditional skull-and-bones tattoo, but in this case, it’s a symbol of the Waffen-SS, the armed wing of the Schutzstaffel. It’s often accompanied by the phrase Meine Ehre heißt Treue, which means “My honor is my loyalty”, a former slogan of the Nazi party.
Russian Mob Symbols
The Russian prison tattoo system contains a highly intricate, often esoteric, hierarchy of symbols that can represent different meanings depending on placement.
Playing card tattoos are very popular jailhouse tattoos for inmates who are in prison for gambling, or for inmates who love to gamble in general. It can also mean that the person with this tattoo sees life as a gamble, pushing their luck and usually losing.
In Russian prisons, however, playing card tattoos have an entirely different meaning depending on the suit of cards: spades represent thieves while diamonds represent informants and “prison rats”. Heart cards signify that the person is looking for love inside the prison. Unlike American tattoos, these suites are usually applied in Russian prison by force, usually as a punishment for breaking prison codes of honor, or if they insult a high-ranking gang member.
Cross on the Chest
A cross tattoo on a person’s chest is usually reserved for the highest echelons of the Russian Mafia. It is the highest rank that a Russian mobster can achieve, and symbolizes being a “Prince of Thieves”.
Eight-pointed Star on Clavicle
Another tattoo reserved for high-ranking members of the Russian Mafia, the eight-pointed star tattoo denotes that the person is a highly respected member of the Vor, a moniker for the Russian mob.
Skull and Crossbones
Unlike the West’s connotation of piracy with skull and crossbones tattoos, Russian inmates serving life sentences usually carry this ink proudly.
Despite their religious connotation, church and monastery tattoos on Russian inmates signify thievery, with the number of cupolas on the church spires signifying the amount of convictions they’ve had.
In the West, the Compass Rose often symbolizes a yearning for freedom or adventure, but in the Russian prison tattoo system, this is usually used to indicate a person’s hatred for prison guards and law enforcement in general.