The Art Behind Inmate Tattoos

Inmate tattoos are a popular “prison trademark.” But why? Are inmate tattoos symbolic of something deeper? Do all tattoos represent gangs? Why do inmates want to wear something symbolic, permanently?
Kenzie Koch
Kenzie Koch

It’s easy for an inmate to blend in with the rest of the inmate population. You wear the exact same uniform that every other inmate wears. You typically don’t have access to hair products or makeup. You can’t wear flashy jewelry, designer belts, or the latest Nike sneakers. In short, inmates don’t have the freedom to dress however they please so most of their identity is based on their body type or race. They don’t have the luxury of expressing who they are through clothing. For inmates who want to lay low and serve their sentence without drawing attention to themselves, looking the same as everyone else isn’t a problem. However, there are always going to be inmates who want to stick out. To do so, they need to have something bold to show their status. So how does that happen? How do they show their individuality? How would they want to be identified by other inmates? What can they do in a facility with limited options? One idea, that also happens to be extremely popular throughout all prisons, is to confidently wear a symbolic tattoo. 

Whether you’re a fan of tattoos or not, you’ve probably heard of the argument that anyone who considers getting a tattoo should know that it’s a permanent decision. Thus, any tattoo to consider is a tattoo that should have a deep meaning. Whether you agree or disagree with this argument, it has a valid point. It’s normal to assume that people consider getting a tattoo before making an impulsive decision (although that is OK as well). When you think about inmates with tattoos, you may think that there wasn’t more than two minutes worth of thought that went behind their tattoos. However, don’t be fooled. Inmate tattoos are likely to be the most thoughtful pieces of artwork. Why? Because they are using tattoos to display their badge of identity. For example, an inmate with a tattoo of a cross on their hand would presumably be Christian, right? Most likely. However, inmates use tattoos to show more than their religious beliefs. There are many different types of inmate tattoos that show what they are serving time for, how long they’ve been behind bars, what gang they are affiliated with, etc. In fact, inmate tattoos can sometimes provide hints to officers as to how the inmate views themselves, what gangs they are affiliated with, or what they are capable of.   

As a corrections officer, it is important to balance the inmate’s need to display their individuality and the safety and security of the facility. At a minimum, understanding the sometimes hidden meanings behind the tattoo could prevent a dangerous situation in the facility.
Chris Riedmueller
GUARDIAN RFID Product Trainer

Aside from wanting to get a symbolic tattoo, the act of getting a tattoo while being incarcerated is a sign itself. Due to most facilities illegalizing tattooing while serving time, inmates who are determined to get a tattoo have to be sneaky about it and then hide it from staff until it fully heals. That is if they don’t want to be punished for performing illegal acts while locked up. If an inmate chooses to confidently show his or her newly fresh tattoo in an obvious location, they are trying to show how “powerful” they want to be portrayed as. 

Excluding the health concerns of sharing the same needle, there are several dangerous factors of getting tattooed while behind bars. Given prisons don’t have access to a sterilized tattoo shop, inmates have found loopholes to make the ink and needles themselves. The mechanics of the needle movement is typically made up of CD players, pen casings, or guitar strings. A make-shift tattoo machine is built off the foundation of broken spoons and deodorant labels. The motor from a beard trimmer connects to a piece of metal (such as scissors, paper clips, or razor if you’re lucky) to bring the machine to life. The ink is made by saving soot in a cup or carton of liquid and burning the soot over a fire (of course, a makeshift fire that is definitely illegal as well). The ashes melt and are mixed with water, urine, or alcohol to create a liquid. It’s a messy process to get a tattoo inside of prison, but the inmates wear them with pride. Regardless of how dangerous the process is, if an inmate really wants to get a tattoo, they will find a way.

Below are two categories of inmate tattoos that are popular while incarcerated. The first category is “General Tattoos” as they do not correlate with a specific violent gang. On the other hand, the second category is “Gang-Related Tattoos” as they are correlated with the gang lifestyle. 

General Tattoos

The cobweb tattoo is supposed to represent how a fly feels trapped in a web, similar to how inmates feel trapped in a prison. Usually, this tattoo is worn by those who are serving a long-term sentence and is commonly found on an inmate's elbow signifying the inmate has been sitting around for so long on their elbows that a spider made a web. (Photo from TatRing)

One of the most popular tattoos you’ve seen on celebrities, rap artists, or in Hollywood movies is the teardrop tattoo. This is also one of the most widely recognized prison tattoos as the teardrop signifies murder. Although it has one overarching symbol, the design of the teardrop can signify different meanings. For example, 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. (Photo from MoMa)

The “three dots'' tattoo can represent two different meanings. The first of which is a representation of Christianity’s holy trinity and the second meaning, being totally different from the first, means “gang life” but isn’t associated with a particular gang. The placement of this tattoo is typically found around the eyes. (Photo from Pinterest)

However, not all “dot” tattoos are alike. For example, the “five dot” tattoo represents time done in prison. The four dots on the outside represent four walls, with the fifth on the inside representing the prisoner. Five dots (Photo from BakLOL)

The clock tattoo is another tattoo that is often seen on normal civilians but has a deep meaning behind prison walls. The clock itself symbolizes “doing time” but if the clock has hands or not represents how long the wearer’s sentence is. Typically, a clock without any hands means they are serving a life sentence. (Photo from Tomatoheart)

A suit of cards tattoo is common throughout many different walks of life, but like all prison tattoos, there is a deeper meaning to a card tattoo on an inmate. Playing cards represent gambling, so those who sport the tattoo are indicating they like the gamble. Other times, the pip artwork (spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds) portrays a meaning. For example, the heart speaks as someone looking for a romantic partner. (Photo from Tattoo SEO)

The “EWMN” tattoo can look like a very bad typo at first glance. However, it’s no mistake. The letters mean “Evil, Wicked, Mean, Nasty” and represent the characteristics of the wearer’s personality as they aren’t remorseful for their crime). This four-lettered tattoo is commonly found on the knuckles of inmate fingers, purposely visible to serve as a sign. (Photo from TipHero)

Another tattoo that has different meanings is the ACAB tattoo. One meaning is “All Cops Are Bastards” and is worn by inmates who have had bad encounters with law enforcement. Another meaning is “Always Carry A Bible.” (Photo from DeviantArt)

The Lock and Key tattoo can have two very different meanings. One being a symbol of eternal love while the other is a symbol of the Black Guerilla Family, a gang known for drug trafficking, auto theft, burglary, and homicide. Many members of the BGF gang have a Lock and Key tattoo to show their loyalty and commitment to the lifestyle. (Photo from TattoosWin)

Gang-Related Tattoos:

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 (to show dominance). 

The Aryan Brotherhood makes up 1% of the inmate population across the U.S. and is responsible for 20% of murders that take place inside U.S. prisons. Their tattoos have the “AB” initials that stand for Aryan Brotherhood and are typically accompanied by other Nazi-representing tattoos. (Photo from Southern Poverty Law Center)

The 1488 tattoo is commonly found on white supremacist or Nazi inmates. The 14 represents the fourteen words from a Nazi leader David Lane quote: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children” while the 88 equates to HH (as H is the 8th letter in the alphabet twice) and represents the initials of Heil Hitler. (Photo from Columbia Journalism Review)

Many people in general society have a crown tattoo. Whether it symbolizes “royalty” or “triumph,” it’s commonly seen on normal civilians. But if you look closely, some crown tattoos have a specific number of points for a very symbolic reason. More often seen on Hispanic inmates is the five-pint ALKN crown tattoo. This tattoo design symbolizes the Latin Kings gang (one of the biggest Hispanic gangs in the U.S.) with five points due to the Latin Kings being an affiliate of the People Nation gang, which is represented by the number five. Sometimes the five-point crown also has the letters ALKN which stands for Almighty Latin Kings Nation. (Photo from FashionBeans)

We’ve all seen someone with a tattoo of their girlfriend’s name or initials. Although some see it as a sweet gesture, others can easily see it as a symbol of gang-related pride. In prison, the “M” tattoo is a symbol of the Mexican Mafia, otherwise known as “Le Eme,” one of the largest and most ruthless prison gangs in the U.S. Interestingly enough, this gang wasn’t initiated in Mexico, but instead inside American prisons by incarcerated Mexican Americans. (Photo from Pinterest)

Now, if you added the number 13 and the letter S with the M tattoo, then you have a brand-new meaning. The MS 13 tattoo is a symbol of the Mara Salvatrucha gang that is known for its drug dealing and child prostitution rings. (Photo Wikimedia)

Any individual who wants to show off their tattoos will find a way to do so, especially inmates who want to make a bold statement about themselves. Despite the personal opinions your grandmother may have on the appearance of tattoos, inmates wear their permanent artwork with pride. Flaunting their symbolic tattoos is their personal badge of identity, and they’re proud to show it off to prove their individuality. 


CorrectionsOne (2014) 15 Prison Tattoos and Their Meanings
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Jaafari, Joseph (2019) The Underground Art of Prison Tattoos
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