Prison Tattoo Field Guide

Prison Tattoo Field Guide

harry reid

14 Words

The number 14 on this man’s right temple represents the “14 Words” of the white nationalist David Lane, which encompass the supremacist philosophy: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children” On the left temple, the number 88 stands for “Heil Hitler,” H being the eighth letter of the alphabet. The 88 is also representative of an 88-word passage from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which inspired Lane to write his own manifesto.
The interlocking triangles on the left cheek are a Norse symbol known as the Valknut that represents the idea of dying in battle. It is worn by Neo-Nazi and Aryan supremacy groups to show a readiness to fight and die for the cause of ensuring prosperity for the white race.


Used as white pride symbol, the woodpecker is often stylized to resemble the cartoons Woody Woodpecker or Mr. Horsepower. The word “Peckerwood” originated in the south, where blacks, who associated themselves with theblackbird, used the term derogatorily to describe whites, who they thought were akin to the noisy, redheaded woodpecker. Since then, the term gained popularityamong white-power groups, who sometimes refer to each other as Peckerwoods. In American prisons, inmates can be seen wearing tattoos that say “100% Wood” or “PW” to denote white pride.

One of the most common criminal tattoos is the teardrop underneath the eye. The most widely accepted meaning of the teardrop is the wearer has killed someone — this is reported to have originated among the Chicano gangs of California. The teardrop can also mean that the wearer has served a long prison sentence, or is mourning the loss of a family member. A clear teardrop, like the one pictured, can mean that the wearer has committed an attempted murder, or alternatively, that a close friend was killed and the wearer is seeking revenge.

Clock With No Hands
The clock with no hands symbolizes “doing time” and is representative of the meaninglessness of time to an inmateserving a lengthy, or lifelong, prison sentence.

Three Dots
The three dots tattoo, worn either on the hand or near the eye, represents the phrase “Mi Vida Loca,” or “My Crazy Life.” The tattoo can be found on many Hispanic inmates and does not necessarily mean affiliation with any particular gang. The three dots can also carry religious meaning, representing the holy trinity.

Five Dots

The five dots, or quincunx, tattoo is representative of time spent in prison. The four outer dots symbolize prison walls, while the inner dot is the inmate. This tattoo is most commonly worn on the hand between the thumb and forefinger and can be found in both European and American prisons. Among American gangs, the five dot tattoo can also signify affiliation with gangs that identify with the number five, such as the the People Nation gangs, who use the five-pointed star and five-pointed crown as symbols.

Five Point Crown
The five point crown is a symbol of the Latin Kings gang which originated in 1940s Chicago. The ALKN on this tattoo stands for Almighty Latin King Nation. Other tattoos may have the acronym ALKQN, with the Q standing for Queen. Latin Kings belong to the People Nation network of gangs, and thus identify themselves with the number five, using a five-pointed star hand symbol as well as the crown seen in this tattoo and in Latin King graffiti.

MS 13
The MS 13 on this man’s back stands for Mara Salvatrucha, a large Latino gang notorious for its ruthlessness and violence. MS 13 originated in Los Angeles, but now operates across the United States as well as in Mexico, Central America and Canada. In addition to markings on the body, MS 13 members often sport intricate face tattoos.

La Eme
The two Ms in this tattoo stand for Mexican Mafia, or La Eme. La Eme is one of the most powerful and highly organized gangs in the American prison system, and controls most of the Chicano gangs in Southern California. La Eme holds an alliance with the Aryan Brotherhood, who are mutual enemies of Nuestra Familia.
SUR 13
Sure�os, meaning Southerners in Spanish, are a Southern California gang that is controlled by the Mexican Mafia. The 13 in this tattoo stands for the letter M, the 13th letter of the alphabet.
Rivals of the Sure�os, the Norte�os of Northern California and the Pacific Northwestern states are controlled by Nuestra Familia, the chief rivals of the Mexican Mafia. The sombrero symbol in this tattoo is the same sombrero symbol used by Nuestra Familia members.
Aryan Brotherhood
The shamrock is a common image in tattoos worn by members of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang. Though many tattoos include the letters AB to display affiliation, some may instead use 12, representing the first and second letters of the alphabet. The number of the beast, 666, is also commonly used in Aryan Brotherhood tattoos.

Sig Runes
Nazi symbols, such as Swastikas and Sig runes, are also frequently seen on tattoos worn by members of the Aryan Brotherhood and other white supremacist gangs. During World War II, the runes were worn as insignia by the SS of the Third Reich.

The two mask tattoos seen in this photo are also a common theme in prison tattoos. With a generally accepted meaning of “play now, pay later,” or “laugh now, cry later,” the theatrical masks can be seen on prisoners regardless of gang affiliation.

The reality behind prison tattoos

Your field guide to prison tattoos: What they mean, how they’re placed on the body, and why they’re controlled by the prison system.

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