Tattoos are commonly used among criminals to show gang membership and record the wearer's personal history—such as his or her skills, specialties, accomplishments and convictions. They are also used as a means of personal expression. Certain designs have developed recognized coded meanings. The code systems can be quite complex and because of the nature of what they encode, the tattoos are not widely recognized.
Tattooing in prison
Tattooing is forbidden in most prisons. It is therefore done in secret, with makeshift equipment. Some tattoos are made using melted rubber from the sole of a shoe, soot and/or ash, and urine for some sterilization.
Prisoners who were transported from Britain to Australian penal colonies between 1787 and 1867 were sometimes tattooed with marks intended to signify disgrace, for example D for deserter. Prisoners often modified these tattoos to conceal the original design or to express wry or rebellious messages.
Common tattoos are names of relatives or gang members, symbols of aggression, tattoos advertising a particular skill, or religious imagery. One of the most well-known tattoos is the teardrop tattoo, which sometimes indicates the bearer has killed or the number years or terms a prisoner has served.
Another common tattoo in American prisons and jails, especially for Hispanic inmates, is three dots on the top of the hand between the index finger and thumb, similar to what is described for French criminal tattoos below. The trio is meant to symbolize alternately the Trinity (Catholic & Christian imagery is common in the US penal system) or 'Mi Vida Loca.' (My Crazy Life in Spanish)
- Ankh – Eternal life
- Anubis – Protection from death
- Eye of Horus – Protection from enemies/back-stabbers
In France, five dots tattoo resembling the dots on a dice, placed on the hand between index finger and thumb are found on prison inmates. This tattoo represents the individual between the four walls of the prison cell (un homme entre quatre murs - a man between four walls).
Tattoos of 3 dots on the hand means "death to cops" (mort aux flics).
A single dot on the cheek usually means the wearer is a pimp (point des maquereaux).
A stick figure holding a trident is also a common French prison tattoo.
Russia and former Soviet republics
Russian criminal tattoos have a complex system of symbols which can give quite detailed information about the wearer. Not only do the symbols carry meaning but the area of the body on which they are placed may be meaningful too. The initiation tattoo of a new gang member is usually placed on the chest and may incorporate a rose. A rose on the chest is also used within the Russian Mafia. Wearing false or unearned tattoos is punishable in the criminal underworld. Tattoos can be voluntarily removed (for loss of rank, new affiliation, "life style" change, etc.) by bandaging magnesium powder onto the surface of the skin, which dissolves the skin bearing the marks with painful caustic burns. This powder is gained by filing "light alloy" e.g. lawnmower casing, and is a jailhouse commodity.
Tattoos done in a Russian prison have a distinct bluish color and usually appear somewhat blurred because of the lack of instruments to draw fine lines. The ink is often created from burning the heel of a shoe and mixing the soot with urine, and injected into the skin utilizing a sharpened guitar string attached to an electric shaver.
In addition to voluntary tattooing, tattoos are used to stigmatize and punish individuals within the criminal society. They may be placed on an individual who fails to pay debts in card games, or otherwise breaks the criminal code, and often have very blatant sexual images, embarrassing the wearer. Tattoos on the forehead are usually forcibly applied, and designed both to humiliate the bearer and warn others about him or her. They frequently consist of slurs about the bearer's ethnicity, sexual orientation, or perceived collusion with the prison authorities. They can indicate that the bearer is a member of a political group considered offensive by other prisoners (e.g. Vlasovite), or has been convicted of a crime (such as child rape) which is disapproved of by other criminals.
Tattoos that consist of political or anti-authoritarian statements are known as "grins". They are often tattooed on the stomach of a thief in law, as a means of acquiring status in the criminal community. A Russian criminologist, Yuri Dubyagin, has claimed that, during the Soviet era, there existed "secret orders" that an anti-government tattoo must be "destroyed surgically", and that this procedure was usually fatal.
Common tattoos and their significance:
- Barbed wire tattooed across the forehead signifies a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
- Birds over horizon: "I was born free and should be free"
- Cat: a career as thief. A single cat means the bearer worked alone; several cats mean the bearer was part of a gang.
- Churches, fortresses, etc. are often tattooed on the chest, back, or hand. The number of spires or towers can represent the years a prisoner has been incarcerated, or number of times he has been imprisoned. The phrase, "The Church is the House of God," often inscribed beneath a cathedral, has the metaphorical meaning, "Prison is the Home of the Thief."
- Madonna and baby Jesus indicates the person has been a thief since childhood.
- Dagger: sex offender
- Executioner: Murderer
- Rose (white-dried): Death is preferable to loss of virtue.
- Spider or spider web: may symbolize racism or doing time in prison
- Spider Web: Worn on left elbow and symbolizes that the wearer is a predator and highly dangerous, spiders are associated with hunters, they wait patiently to capture their prey and then kill it. Also, it may symbolize that the wearer has killed before or is willing to. Wearer has to be in a high rank to wear this tattoo.
- Tombstones represent the loss of time. You may see the number of years that are served (i.e. 5 tombstones reading 2001 - 2005 means the prisoner has done 5 years).
- SS: two sig runes were the symbol of the Schutzstaffel, Nazi insignia
- Stars: Worn on the knees: signifies that the owner will kneel before no man, or no one.
- Stars: Worn on the shoulders:Signifies that the owner is a man of discipline, status, and tradition. Men will also receive stars when promoted to "Captain".
- Skulls: Signifies murder, if the murder was significant enough to merit the tattoo. Military insignia and uniform epaulets are worn on the shoulders. This symbolizes criminal accomplishments. When a Skull symbol is portrayed with it, it usually designates a man as a murderer. Epaulets are decorated with certain crests and symbols in the sections where one can see the Skull there prior to conviction, especially when it was of any significance.
- Swastika: Symbol of the Nazi party.
If a Russian person that is not in the Russian Mafia wears any of these tattoos he will be penalized with death if caught.
- Gang signal
- HWDP, Polish anti-Police acronym
- Irezumi, Japanese tattooing
- List of Chinese criminal organizations
- List of criminal enterprises, gangs and syndicates
- Organized crime
- Russian Mafia
- Teardrop tattoo
- Triad (underground society)
- ^ "Criminal Tattoo History & Tattoo meanings". source. http://www.getinked.co.uk/criminal-tattoo-history.html. Retrieved 2009.
- ^ "About - Criminal tattoo". source. http://www.tattoo-designs.dk/prison-tattoos.html. Retrieved 2009.
- ^ a b Niyi Awofeso (June 2004). "Prison argot and penal discipline". Journal of Mundane Behavior 5 (1). Archived from the original on June 1, 2005. http://web.archive.org/web/20050601085145/http://www.mundanebehavior.org/issues/v5n1/awofeso5-1.htm.
- ^ "Russian prison tattoos". Foreigner prisoner support service. http://www.phaseloop.com/foreignprisoners/exp-russian_tats.html.
- ^ Tattoo Motif and Symbolism
- ^ Spider Web Tattoos - What Do They Mean?
- Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Volume I Danzig Baldaev, ISBN 3-88243-920-3
- Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Volume II Danzig Baldaev, ISBN 978-0955006128
- Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Volume III Danzig Baldaev, ISBN 978-0955006197
- Russian Prison Tattoos: Codes of Authority, Domination and Struggle Alix Lambert, ISBN 0-7643-1764-4
- The Mark of Cain (2000), film on Russian criminal tattoos; DVD, ASIN B0011UBDV8
- Lina Goldberg, Gang Tattoos: Signs of Belonging and the Transience of Signs
- Top tattoos, 
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