Most Notorious Gang Tattoos & Their Meanings
In criminal gangs, tattoos serve a variety of functions, and every gang has a more or less hidden set of meanings associated with particular designs.
Gang-related tattoos have for decades attracted interest and curiosity, as enigmatic as they are fascinating.
Gang and prison tattoos
In and out of jail, members of some crime gangs and mafia groups bear tattoos imbued with very complex meanings. These tattoos and their meanings differ from group to group, because, so to speak, each gang has its own ‘tattoo language’.
Some gang tattoos are intended as a symbol of appreciation for the rank and experience of the member, the unique talents they have, or the crimes they have committed in the course of their group operation. These tattoos are done on a voluntary basis, which means the person must consent to accept the tattoo.
But gang tattoos aren’t really anything ‘positive’ at all. Sometimes, they are used as punishment, sometimes forcefully given (without the consent of the individual). These are generally put somewhere extremely visible and difficult to conceal, such as the face of the person.
Tattoos have more meanings for criminal groups in jails. For example, the tattoo may signify the crime committed by the person that resulted in their incarceration.
If the crime is viewed as advantageous to the criminal community, this may either be a form of positive recognition or retribution if the crime is something the group disapproves of. The former increases the status of the individual inside the party, while the other is intended to discredit them and mark them as traitors.
Prison tattoos, such as the number of times the person has been to prison, may also have more neutral meanings. This is marked in certain circles by crosses on the knuckles of the inmate, one cross for each prison term.
Examples of gang tattoo systems
Partly because there are so many of them, and partly because this is not exactly a well-researched topic, it would be difficult to list the tattoos of all the gangs in the world.
Many criminal gangs, understandably, are extremely secretive about their markings and do not make them public knowledge. Some still use codes and ciphers, such as those adopted by Crips and Bloods of California.
The Crips are a notorious gang located in southern California’s coastal areas, locked in bitter competition with the Bloods. In many of their tattoos, the Crips use code in addition to using the symbol of a three-pointed or six-pointed crown. One type includes substituting individual letters in a word with the alphabet number of the letter—1 for A, 2 for B, 3 for C, etc.
For example, the 211 numbers tattooed on a Crip member stand for ‘BK’, which in turn means ‘Blood Killer’-indicating that a member of the rival gang, the Bloods, was killed by the person.
In their markings, the Bloods often use types of code. One example is the 13/13 cipher, dividing the alphabet in half and replacing the letters with those of the second from the first half, and vice versa, A becomes N, and N becomes A, B becomes O, and O becomes B, and so on.
Blood members would also have the letters MOB tattooed, standing for ‘Member of Blood,’ besides the use of code. The term ‘Piru’ is prevalent, too. The original Blood gang was called the Compton Pirus (named in Los Angeles after West Piru street), so this is a throwback to the roots of the gang. A dog paw is a popular label, too.
Asian gang tattoos
One of the main examples that can come to mind when speaking about criminal-related tattoos is the spectacular full-body tattoos of the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza. Tattooing in Japan has long been linked to illegal activity, with the government using facial tattoos to permanently identify and shame offenders hundreds of years ago.
In order to grossly simplify a long and complicated history, the mafia followed this trend and started to identify themselves.
Extensive tattoos are no longer associated with mafia affiliation in Japan, as a matter of fact. For obvious reasons, it is impractical and attracts unwanted attention. In fact, since tattooing is commonly frowned upon in Japan, not many people bear noticeable tattoos.
Russian prison tattoos
Of the markings given to Russian criminals in prisons, the known symbols include:
- Cat – That’s popular for criminals. A single cat suggests that the perpetrator worked alone, whereas as part of a crime gang, many cats together suggest robbery. The head of a cat is often considered a good luck tattoo for a robber, but it means the criminal’s disregard and hatred for law enforcement when worn on the chest..
- Scarab beetle – also a symbol of good luck for thieves, usually symbolizing a pickpocket.
- Star – Each point of the star normally reflects a year in jail. In Russia, elite organized crime participants, known as Vor V Zakone (‘thief by law’), use a star with 4 big, 4 medium, and 8 small weapons. On each back, a Vor V Zakone star signifies a position of high authority within the gang, while stars on the legs or knees suggest that the individual would not kneel before someone else.
- Cross – subordination or slavery. Can be given forcibly as punishment.
- Manacles – representing five or more years in prison.
- Military insignia – often signify that the prisoner was a high-ranking criminal prior to being incarcerated.
- Skull – usually means that the prisoner is a murderer.
- Barbed wire – when placed on the forehead, it means the prisoner is serving a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
- Birds on the horizon – signify the longing for freedom and mean ‘I was born free and should be free’.
General criminal tattoo symbols
There are a variety of patterns and styles alongside gang-specific or prison-specific tattoos that can hold universal meanings in the criminal underworld.
- Tiger – power and strength
- Spider web – time spent in prison or time spent ‘caught in the web’ of the inescapable gang lifestyle
- Three dots – They stand for “prison, hospital, cemetery” in a triangle, the traditional direction of a gang member. In certain circles, before becoming a full member of the gang, this will be the first tattoo received by a person. The Mexican Cartel is mostly affiliated with this style.
- Five dots – Implying ‘a circle of friends’ and the protection provided by being a member of a crime organization. Originally a Vietnamese symbol, the Bloods, Gangster Disciples, and Asian triads most often use it.
- Masks or clown faces – most commonly associated with Asian and Latin gangs, these usually mean ‘play now, pay later’.
Let’s finish with a compulsory word of caution: most gangs are incredibly serious about their individual tattoos. In the case of those marking a rank, skill, or experience, certain tattoos are gained; others are a means of retaliation for severe transgressions against the gang’s laws.
As such, going out and having a tattoo that is affiliated with a particular gang and has a sense therein will be unwise. This could have significant implications for the entity if the ‘unearned’ tattoo were to be found. Therefore, embracing gang markings solely for cosmetic reasons is particularly inadvisable.