Sunday, August 2, 2009

Prison Tattoos--Links & Notes

Since we are a global society, I will include foreign tattoos, tats, tacs, tatuajes, and so forth. Plus the pictures are better. Below: Russian prison tattoos: note "onion" domes, icon-style saints. Supposedly the number of domes corresponds to the number of years sentenced. We also have skulls, spiders, angels. What are universal themes? What does cultural affinity add? What is communicated, besides, "bad-ass"?

Not a post: a collection of links and notes, working toward some background. Most of the tattoos will be covered in their respective prison gangs. These are general links and notes about tattoos that may cross gang lines, even racial lines, to be universal. (Updated December 10, 2009.) Asterisk ** denote the best refs.

When you see the picture of a prisoner covered in tattoos, you can't assume all of them are prison tattoos.
A prison tattoo, the way I would define it, is
a. a tattoo received in prison, within one of the unofficial markets within the incarceration system, of any subject or purpose.
b. a tattoo that showed affiliation to a prison gang, acquired in or out of prison.  Okay, now that I have that figured out:           You'd have to ask in order to be sure.

How It's Done: These tattoos are made "on the run" so to speak, since they are forbidden by most or all departments of correction. It's a severe penalty to be caught with the equipment or a component of the equipment. This means some of them are incredibly detailed, with fine shading from a lot of hand work, and others are crude, with lines of wavering thickness and quality.
Example at left : tattooing without machinery.

Tattoo gun:
--From Convicted Artist site:
"A convict first breaks down his or her most valued possession, their AM-FM radio, and remove removes the transistor.
The micro-thin copper coated wire is then carefully removed, wrapped around a screw which provides an automatic relay when juiced up.

Courtesy: Vagabond Journeys
A convict must then smuggle some wire brush bristles from the maintenance shop which will serve him as a needle when sharpened correctly. [Or guitar wire-ATH]
The cylinder is made from a quality mechanical pencil and the armature bar is made with a piece of flexible pallet band and dime size magnet.
The tattoo gun is now powered by the transistor of yet another radio so owning one of these jack hammers can be costly considering the fact money is hard to come by in prison.
The struggle of prison tattooing doesn’t end there. Any tattoo artist caught slinging ink in prison is in for 15 days Solitary Confinement while all of his earnings are confiscated.
So that pretty much explains why tattoo artists in prison make some decent change and are in such high demand."

--Ink: cigarette ash; paper ash, residue of burned plastic, (such as the burned end of a toothbrush) the carbon from inside a battery, or soot mixed with shampoo, according to this site;  ball point ink, soot from burned styrofoam cups, according to this one; basically, whatever is available. large chunks are cut up with a razor to fine them down. This explains why most prison tats are either black, grey, or blue.

--Video, Prison Tattooist: Ted Koppel makes nice in prison, eventually interviewing a tattoo artist. This guy says they do it for rememberance, heritage, art, or out of boredom. He tells you how he makes a tattoo gun. This discussion, almost 4 minutes, varies in the range of truthfulness. e.g., payment is discussed, but barter is left out. The best video I found so far, but maybe not the best explanation.

--Sharing needles, including tattoo needles, puts one at risk for Hepatitis or HIV. The hands, needles, or other equipment is rarely sterilized. In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control also became worried about a rise in resistant-staph infections including prison communities: called MSRA.  The symptoms generally start as a skin infection, but can spread to joints and to the lungs.
Between the expense, the penalties, and the health risks, a prison tattoo is a sign of massive commitment.

The "Key" to the Tattoo Message:
First: there's conflicting information. This may mean "regional variations" or it could be that the information is coming from "unreliable witnesses." So, the key should be taken with a grain of salt. No one research site will give you everything, and the best researchers always say that.

The tear, open, closed, half-open: this has become rather muddied. The open tear means somebody you love died on the outside. The closed tear means you killed somebody (thus avenging, directly or indirectly, a dead family member on the outside). Or, not. The half-filled tear is newer, and replaces the "kill sign" which now could mean anything. Celebrities are now getting this tattoo.
The tear under the left eye: People Nation. The tear under the right eye: Folk Nation.

The clock with no hands: time stands still. Prison time.
The eight ball: Bad luck. Like, you had bad luck or you are bad luck? Have to check the context.
The gravestone: Tombs with numbers for the amount of time served.
Skull: killed someone. Or, somebody likes skulls, probably not indicative alone.

The spiderweb
: means 'stuck', doing time. Some say the number of rungs is the number of years sentenced. It's believed in white supremacy tattooing, that the spiderweb on an elbow means you murdered someone. This guy looks like he served eight and then got into meth . . . .

--2009, July 16--Jacksonville--After prison, removing tattoos may open job possibilities." In Florida, one person pictured, second, right, is looking to get away from the revolving door. And good luck to him.

Credit: Russian Maffia, top.
Credits: Teardrop no. 1, Gang Ink. com, Chicago; Teardrop no. 2: Jacksonville news. com, Florida.
Credit: Tattooed arm, Vagabond, from Jordan. A few posts with Bedouin tattoos.
Credit: Tattooed tear no. 3 plus Asia-influenced symbols,, Ride Dirty or Die's page. According to RDD, the tats were made of soot from a styrofoam cup.
Credit: Mara Salvatrucha tattoo, possibly from El Salvador, from soaw. org's Presente e-Mag, Note horns, MS trece, on forehead, skulls, tombstones on chest, spiderweb on shoulder.
Credit: Prison tattoos from the Philippines, Pinoy Tattoos. com; UK prison tat, A.C.A.B. means "All Coppers are Bastards, from 24 Oranges blog, Netherlands. Guy got arrested, it's a crime in the Netherlands to insult law enforcement.
Bottom Picture, The Anti-Defamation League/Curtis Allgier
Keep going down: there's more--

Web sites:
--The Anti-Defamation League has information on hate symbols, concentrating on white supremacists.
--Cell block visions has a site on jail art, tattoo art, and biker symbols.
**Florida Department of Corrections has several pages of prison gangs and their identifiers on their great Web site.
**RobertWalker's Gangsorus has a good discussion on the meanings of various tattoos: teardrops and dots in particular. He in turn recommends the
**GangInk. com site, which has information on prison tattoos. Specifically on this page: the large tattoo mural, on chest or back, and the teardrop. Chicago-based information.
--Pickled Fingers blog has a series on prison tattoos, but all the pictures have disappeared. No authority is given.
--Write a Prisoner. com has a message board. Some reliable, inaccurate, and joker variety responses to a question on prison tattoo meanings. Ah, reader discretion advised.

Cultural sites and resources:
These tattoos now attract a lot of interest, as a cultural phenomenon or "Outsider Art" rather than a correction or public health issue. Significant: the artist of record is almost always the photographer, never the tattooist.
Also significant: The captions are of varying quality, reflecting the artistic rather than law enforcement interest in the subject matter.
--Convicted Artist Magazine site: This is the tattoo page, with links to other pages on this site, some of which highlight (mostly West-Coast) tattoo artists.
--Marked Men Gallery: by Christine Brady and Peter Wollheim for U Idaho Boise's Idaho Issues Online, Spring 2005
--South African Prison Tattoos at the Guardian. Photographer, Araminta de Clermont.
--Texas Prison Tattoos: A five page high-quality photo pictorial by Andrew Lichtenstein.
**This looks great: A documentary "The Mark of Cain" (2000) by Alix Lambert on Russian Prison Tattoos. Available at Microcinema for purchase and maybe Amazon. At that link, three clips are available for perusal. I think this one might be interesting for corrections personnel, since it looks like it shows a lot about prison conditions and prisoner psychology.  (film, 73 minutes, in Russian subtitles).
This is what I have . . . .


RD said...

I arrrested a White Supremacist last night. He had the "14" tattoo on his face, next to his right eye. He had the 5150 on the right side of his neck and "44" and "true blood" on the left side of his neck.

Ann T. said...

Dear RD,
Thank you for writing in! I know the 5150 stands for crazy--but I had to look for the 44. Still haven't found it, but i wonder if it's the nazi double thunderbolt symbol disguised as a number.

I'll keep looking--
Ann T.

RD said...

@ Ann T,

You are correct, 5150 is the California Penal Code for crazy.

I asked the guy what the "44" meant. He said "White Supremacist stuff." It could be code for the number 8 meaning Hitler, but that is a WAG.

The man I arrested is IPS. 5150 for the I, P for Peckerwood, .........

Now, I understand your comment on my blog, sorry, I was being dense.


Ann T. said...

Dear RD,
Thanks for writing back!

I toyed with the idea that the 44 was 1/2 of 88, 8 being the 8th letter=HH or Heil Hitler, too.

Or maybe there's some other 44 word quote that has significance. Too bad he wouldn't say! But I'm glad you asked.

Ann T.

Anonymous said...

Please clarify for me, you stated this individual was white, I am confused as to the meaning of the "14" is this not usually associated with the Norentos gang or the 14th letter N?
Please assist


Ann T. said...

Dear John,
You are absolutely right, the 14 is associated with Nortenos, for the 14th letter of the alphabet. However, another gang, particularly of a different race or rivalry situation could use the fourteen for another purpose.

In this case, the fourteen stands for a fourteen-word slogan. In the picture immediately above (click to enlarge) the third entry gives the slogan.

How wonderful that you wrote in! I am always glad to see interest in these entries. Have a great day!

Ann T.

Wade | said...

Hello Ann,

Really enjoy your site. My name is Wade Shepard, the editor of, and you used a photo that I took of the guy's arm in Jordan. I don't mind if other websites around the internet use my photos, but could you please provide a function link back to the source?

with the anchor text saying something like "Vagabond Journey Tattoos From Around the World"


Wade Shepard

Barbie said...

I was wondering if you knew the meaning behind a Nike- like check mark tattoo with two dots on the outside of the curve? Thank you. Please reply to

Free Tattoos said...

Really cool Postt Ann. I'm a tattoo lover myself and found the info very educative. :)