Prison Tattoo Field Guide
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
During his testimony in court, you may have noticed a few tattoos on convicted criminal and murderer Josh Gouker’s body: A teardrop underneath his eye, an image on his hand, two words on his lower arm. Gouker is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of his stepson, Trey Zwicker, but do his tattoos have anything to do with the murder or his time in prison?
Potentially, according to retired law enforcement official and prison culture expertRichard Lichten. He says an inmate’s tattoos always have a personal meaning, regardless of that person’s affiliation.
“Typically, people get tattoos in prison to support their race and the people around them,” says Lichten. “I’ve talked to many inmates and it’s always about what’s important to them. It can be something personal, like a spouse’s name or a Bible quote, or to belong to a group, to intimidate others, or to tell a story.”
Of course, the meaning of each tattoo is different and doesn’t necessarily mean that the wearer has been to prison, but some tattoos are more common among inmates, according to a report by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute. The teardrop tattoo is one of them, but it can have a variety of meanings: News reports are littered with accounts about its association with a committed murder, a long prison sentence, mourning of a murdered friend or family member, or having beenraped in prison. But it might also mean “somebody’s mother doesn’t have a son anymore” or that an inmate has “had a sad life,” according to historian Christine Brady of the Idaho State Historical Society.
Some designs are more elementary and can be tattooed onto the body with basic instruments. Take a look at the three-dot or the five-dot tattoos. Respectively, they mean — among other things — the three words “Mi Vida Loca,” according to law enforcement officer Andrew Eways, and that the person is protected by a group, according to a report by the Canada Border Service Agency.
Others are more elaborate and range from knuckle tattoos to arm sleeves to full-body shirts filled with signs, letters, and numbers that represent the inmate’s affiliation. Lichten says these tattoos require some MacGyver-ing of fairly common items like pencils, staples, and newspaper ink, some of which can be purchased through commissary.
“In prisons, inmates tend to be good with electronics and they make their owndevices. They’ll steal a needle from the nurse or pick a staple out of a magazine and attach it to the end of a pencil or a toothbrush. For the ink, they melt newspaper ink and press it down below the skin, the old-fashioned way — it’s very painful,” says Lichten.
But let’s talk about the inmate’s expression of affiliation. Lichten tells HLN that “supporting your race is how you survive prison.” He adds, “It doesn’t mean joining a gang or committing crimes, but when time comes, you have to support your race. If one day, all African-Americans decide they won’t go to the yard [and you’re African-American] and you decide to do your own thing, you’re going to have some issues.”
To show their affiliation, a lot of inmates get tattoos that represent the gang they belong to. Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood, and La Nuestra Familia are some of the largest gang networks prevalent in the U.S. prison system, according to theFlorida Department of Corrections, and each one has distinct tattoo signage (see gallery above).
Lichten says these tats are meant to be seen, not hidden, so inmates can get tattoos on exposed parts of their bodies, like the neck, head or even face, and, often, they don’t stop at just one. But here’s the kicker: Tattoos are prohibited in prison.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, having a tattoo kit is considered contraband for a number of reasons: It can be used as a weapon and it spreads infections and diseases. Lichten also adds that tattoos can mean gang membership, so prisons don’t allow them.
“You can get in trouble for getting it, giving it, or possessing the tools. And the lookout is just as guilty as the artist and the wearer,” says Lichten.
Still, he adds that it goes on all the time. So if many tattoos are visible, how do inmates get away with them? “It’s done in secret, but it’s done,” says Lichten.
He says the best way to control any contraband is to do as many scheduled and unscheduled searches as possible. “The more searches, the less weapons, contraband, etc.,” says Lichten.
Of course, the problem with constant searches is that they require a lot of time and personnel. Lichten tells HLN that in order to do a search properly, corrections officials have to lock down the entire cell block and search through every inch of it, which can take hours. “Unless you have a team specifically for that, it can impact the rest of the operation,” he adds.
So ,you see, tattooing is serious business in prison. “They have meaning,” says Lichten.
“When you get out, you still have to wear those tattoos. If you’re getting your neck tatted up or an arm sleeve, it’s going to have an impact on you in the work force.” But, he adds, “People spending 30, 40, 50 years in prison don’t care about that.”