The act of permanently marking oneself has historically set the individual apart from regular society, and has also symbolized the wearer as a dedicated member of a particular group.
Though cultural acceptance has changed over recent years, tattoos have traditionally marked their wearers as outlaws, rebels, historically worn by sailors, bikers and criminals outside American society and across the globe.
In prison, tattoos often have specific codified meanings. Some may be general indicators of the criminal life. Other tattoos are very specific about the wearer's rank, affiliations, criminal accomplishments or punishments.
The means of applying tattoos in prison are crude due to restrictions on tools that could be used for attacking guards or other inmates. Improvised items include paperclips, staples, refashioned ballpoint pens or guitar strings, for example.
Permanent ink may be taken from pens, or by mixing soot with shampoo, or other less-sanitary mixtures.
Here are a few of the widely seen tattoos found in many prisons across the country and the world. This list is far from comprehensive, as convicts are possessed of plenty of time to innovate.
Three dots between thumb and index finger
"Mi vida loca," or "My crazy life": Indicates one's dedication to the gangster lifestyle. However, in French prisons, it means "Death to cops."
Five dots between thumb and index finger
Multi-denominational: Represents the individual in prison. The center dot is the inmate, surrounded by the four corners or watchtowers of prison.
Teardrops on cheek under eye
Traditionally or "West Coast style," a black or filled-in teardrop denotes a murder, each drop representing a victim, and an unfilled drop signified the intent to murder a target, or revenge.
Newer meanings have developed that denote, with unfilled drops, the loss of someone close. They may also represent the amount of time served in prison.
Cobweb on elbow
Denotes time "stuck" in prison. The amount of rings of a web may indicate the amount of years served. A spider outside the web may indicate an ex-convict's achievement of freedom.
Playing cards, dice
Affinity for gambling. However, tattoos with different suits have special meaning in Russian prisons.
Clock with no hands
Life in prison or lengthy sentence.
"All Cops Are Bastards"; alternately "Always Carry A Bible." Sometimes symbolized with dots in between the knuckles on the hand.
Mexican Mafia, or "La Eme"
Spanish for "the M": Black handprint; "Eme"; "Emero"
"MS 13", "13", "MS", devil horns
Affiliated under Nuestra Familia: "XIV" for the 14th letter "N"; "::" representing "14"; the Warbird
Affiliated under the Mexican Mafia: "Sur 13" for 13th letter "M"; three dots over two bars signifying "13"
"18", "X8", "XVII", "666", "99"
Florida Dept. of Corrections
"21", "XXI", "BA"
Black Guerilla Family
Crossed swords, machetes, rifles; "BGF" or "276"; horned dragon around tower
Crowns, six-pointed stars; "211" ("B", "K", meaning "Blood Killer," in reference to rival Bloods gang)
CBSA Tattoo Handbook
"M.O.B." for Member Of Blood; dog paw; three dots burned on shoulder (representing dog paw)
White supremacist tattoos have various signifiers alluding to Adolf Hitler, Nazism and white supremacy. Norse mythology and pagan symbols also feature in their iconography.
"88" = 8th letter of alphabet, "H", as in "Heil Hitler", "14" for a 14-word quotation by white supremacist leader David Lane.
CBSA Tattoo Handbook
Aryan Brotherhood ("AB") and Nazi Low Riders ("NLR") use similar white-supremacist designs.
Russian prison gangs, whether in the U.S. or in Mother Russia, use a highly codified system of symbols indicating rank and crime specialty, often with multiple meanings.
Eight-pointed star = high-ranking thief; Stars on shoulders = high rank
Stars on knees = "Will kneel before no man"
Religious icons (saints, angels, Virgin Mary) = Thievery
Snake around neck = drug addiction
Other Russian prison tattoo symbols:
Bow-tie on neck = thief who betrayed (forcibly applied)
Cat = thief
Skulls, coffins = murder conviction
Lighthouse = desire for freedom
Wrist manacles = 5 years served for each
Eyes on chest = High rank, overseeing others
Eyes on lower abdomen = homosexuality
Rose on chest, with thorns = "I turned 18 in prison"
Rose on chest, no thorns = initiation tattoo in prison
Gun-toting cowboy = high-risk thief
Skull and crossbones = life term
Mermaid = child molestation
Dagger through neck = murder committed in prison
Dagger = sex offender
Barbed wire = years served
Domes of churches = sentences served (crosses indicate completion)
Playing card suits indicate:
Spade = thief
Clubs = general criminal
Diamonds = informants (applied by force)
Hearts = looking for love (may also have been applied by force)