15 prison tattoos and their meanings
Use this information to keep yourselves and your coworkers safe
By C1 Staff
Jail staff can stay safer by knowing as much as they can about inmates. And sometimes, inmates make it easy to know exactly what they’ve been up to through the use of tattoos.
Here are 15 tattoos and their secret meanings. Know a different meaning for the tattoos displayed here? Share it in the comments. Be sure to check out more of our coverage on prison tattoos, including 15 more prison tattoos and their meanings, 12 Russian prison tattoos and their meanings, and a collection of inmate takes on prison ink.
1488 (Photo freetattoodesigns.org)
This number can be found on white supremacist/Nazi inmates. The numbers 14 or 88 on their own can also be used, which sometimes creates confusion.
Fourteen represents fourteen words, which are a quote by Nazi leader David Lane: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.” The 88 is shorthand for the 8th letter of the alphabet twice, HH, which represents Heil Hitler. Typically, these tattoos can be found anywhere on the body.
The Cobweb (Photo Timeless Tattoos Glasglow)
Cobwebs typically represent a lengthy term in prison. The symbolism is associated with spiders trapping prey; or criminals trapped behind bars. This tattoo is commonly found on the elbow, signifying sitting around so long with your elbows on the table that a spider made a web on your elbow, though it can also be located on the neck.
If you see a multi-colored web, it’s probably not a prison tattoo; tattoo ‘artists’ in jail rarely have access to colored ink.
Teardrop (Photo trendfashion2013)
One of the most widely recognized prison tattoos, the teardrop’s meaning varies geographically. In some places, the tattoo can mean a lengthy prison sentence, while in others it signifies that the wearer has committed murder.
If the teardrop is just an outline, it can symbolize an attempted murder. It can also mean that one of the inmate’s friends was murdered and that they are seeking revenge.
The teardrop has been popularized recently by rappers and other celebrities, but still remains a staple in prisons. Those who are newbies behind bars with a teardrop tattoo will make a lot of enemies, fast.
Five-point crown (Photo Gwan Soon Lee Tattoo)
This is the symbol of the Latin Kings gang, which is one of the biggest Hispanic gangs in the U.S. based out of Chicago. The crown will often be accompanied by the letters ALKN, which stands for Almighty Latin Kings Nation. The five points are due to the Latin Kings being an affiliate of the People Nation gang, which is represented by the number five.
Latin Kings have a huge presence both in and out of prison, and their roots go back to the 1940s. Other details of the crown, such as the colors of the jewels in the points, can have a whole other level of hidden meanings.
Three dots (Photo Whiserkino)
The three dots tattoo is a common prison tattoo that represents “mi vida loca,” or “my crazy life.” It’s not associated with any particular gang, but with the gang lifestyle itself. This tattoo is typically found on the hands or around the eyes.
It can also carry some religious significance, such as representing Christianity’s holy trinity. The three dot tattoo is often created using a stick-and-poke method, requiring very rudimentary tools.
Five dots (Photo My Sarisari Store)
These dots differ greatly from the previous tattoo – five dots represents time done in prison. Also known as the quincunx, the four dots on the outside represent four walls, with the fifth on the inside representing the prisoner.
This tattoo can be found internationally, among both American and European inmates. The dots are typically found on an inmate’s hand, between the thumb and forefinger.
Five dots on other parts of the body can have different meanings, such as an association with the People Nation gang.
The clock with no hands (Photo Tattoo Me Pink)
This tattoo is, fairly obviously, representative of ‘doing time’ and doing a lot of it. Those serving a longer sentence might get this tattoo done on their wrist, with watch straps and all, much like a real watch.
The clock face itself can come in a few forms, such as the face of a wall clock or a grandfather clock. Not all clock tattoos are tied to prison; generally just the ones lacking hands.
Aryan Brotherhood (Photo Media Lib)
This prison gang has a variety of tattoos to look out for, ranging from ‘AB’ to Nazi symbols like a swastika or SS bolts. The Brotherhood makes up 1 percent of the inmate population, but are responsible for 20 percent of murders inside of U.S. prisons, so identifying these tattoos are extremely beneficial.
The tattoos can also be referred to as Alice Baker, the One-Two, or The Brand.
Norteño (Photo Know Gangs)
Norteño tattoos represent the Nuestra Familia gang, which is associated with Hispanic gangs in Northern California. Their tattoos include the word Norteño, Nuestra Familia, a sombrero symbol, the letter N or the number 14, symbolizing the 14th letter of the alphabet (yup – the letter N).
The Norteños are rivals of the Suerños, Hispanic gangs based out of Southern California. The unofficial dividing line between the two is in Delano, California. The Norteños identify themselves with red bandanas and mainly get their income from smuggling and distributing cocaine, heroin and meth.
La Eme (Photo Police Mag)
‘La Eme,’ or The M, is the symbol of the Mexican Mafia. They are one of the largest and most ruthless prison gangs in the U.S. They’re allied with the Aryan Brotherhood, and have a common enemy in the Nuestra Familia.
La Eme was started not in Mexico, but in Mexican-Americans who were incarcerated in American prisons. La Eme is a Sureño gang, belonging to a large affiliation of Hispanic gangs in Southern California.
MS 13 (Photo Wikimedia)
The MS 13, also sometimes seen just as MS or 13, is a symbol of the Mara Salvatrucha gang from El Salvador. Typically these tattoos can be found anywhere on the body, but are most often found in highly visible places like the face, hands or neck.
LA Mara Salvatrucha was started in the Los Angeles area by El Salvadoran immigrants. There are now MS-13 chapters all over the U.S. and even in Canada. Their industries range from dealing drugs to child prostitution.
Playing cards (Photo Tattos Time)
Playing cards, or suits of the deck in general, usually indicate an inmate who likes to gamble. This applies to gambling games both within prison and without; it can also represent a person who generally views life as a gamble.
This tattoo is very popular in Russian prisons, where each deck has its own meaning. A spade represents a thief; clubs symbolize criminals in general. Diamonds are reserved for stoolpigeons and informants – if the cards have this deck, then it was likely applied with force. Hearts imply that someone is looking for a romantic partner in the prison, which may also be forcibly applied.
EWMN (Photo Turner)
These letters stand for ‘Evil, Wicked, Mean, Nasty.’ Having no particular affiliation with any gang, they simply represent the general disposition of some prison inmates.
Typically found on the knuckles, these types of tattoos were popularized in 1955 by Robert Mitchum in ‘The Night of the Hunter.’ His sociopathic preacher character had the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on the knuckles of each hand, which has brought about other variants such as ‘Rock/Roll’ and ‘Stay/Down.’
Cross on the chest (Photo Adimaz)
Particularly found in Russian prisons, chest tattoos symbolize a ‘Prince of Thieves.’ This is the highest rank a Russian convict can achieve, and are generally worn by higher-ups in the mob.
Russian prisons have a unique and intricate history of prison tattoos, each with their own unique meaning. Another example are bells, symbolizing freedom, or a tiger on the chest is symbolic of aggression toward the police.
A.C.A.B. (Photo SAS)
This acronym is commonly found on the bodies of British prisoners and stands for “All Cops Are Bastards.”
Some claim that A.C.A.B. also stands for “Always Carry A Bible,” but these are widely believed to be people who regret their tattoo decision. Often found on the knuckles, the tattoo symbolizes a willingness to go to prison for your crew or gang.