In many countries, there is a long history of prisoners getting tattoos that often have crime-related meaning. Prison tattoos can be seen everywhere today as a lot of them became “mainstream” and regular people get them. Often people don’t understand their deeper meaning or the stories behind them, and when you go through this article you'll understand that it might be best that way. So grab a comfy pillow, sit back and check out these 40 prisoner tattoos and their surprising meanings!
It’s easy to think that a barbed wire tattoo would represent breaking free from wired prison fences or something in that nature. But the thorns actually represent the number of years a person has spent in prison.
The barbed wire tattoo can also symbolize the power of individuals who have conquered painful events. The tattoos became popular during World War 2 with war prisoners and slowly made its way to the criminal world.
Ever had a bad run-in with the cops? Well, prisoners who have, get this tattoo. It stands for “All cops are bastards”. It can also be represented as 1312, matching the placements of the letters in the alphabet.
Prisoners would not always have the greatest respect for law enforcement. And that is exactly why they came up with more than one way of representing that in a tattoo.
A simple five-dot tattoo represents that a person has served or is still serving a prison sentence. The four dots around the middle dot symbolizes the prison walls and the dot in the middle symbolizes the prisoner stuck in those walls.
Although this simple tattoo is quite plain and is pretty easy to make, it has a strong meaning and is very common amongst prisoners. Perhaps it’s common exactly for those reasons.
A three-dot tattoo is like some sort of morse code amongst prisoners. It means ‘mi vida loca’ or ‘my crazy life". It portrays that they are most likely part of a gang but does not disclose specifically which one.
The Mexican mafia members are big fans of the 3-dot tattoos. The Mexican mafia mainly consists of two separate fractions, Surenos and Nortenos and each has created their own symbolic tattoos but both use the 3-dots tattoo.
Lightning bolts on prisoners are usually linked to white supremacist groups. The bolts are really a disgusting tattoo if you know their meaning. These are often referred to as hate symbols by prisoners who are not white supremacists.
The lightning bolts are actually SS AKA the Nazi paramilitary organization Schutzstaffel. The inmates that have these tattoos serve as a declaration for other inmates to see that they have racist beliefs.
Teardrops are probably the most recognizable tattoos and are one of those tattoos that became popular with regular people too. Usually tattooed on the face underneath an eye, it looks like a person has a tear rolling down their cheek.
It usually means that a person has either tried to commit murder or did and spent time for it. The tattoo is not just as simple as it may look and in different countries has different meanings.
Tattoos depicting prison breaks are made to show attitude and intentions to break out, not the smartest way to do it if you ask us. Prisoners who have a tattoo that depicts escape are usually treated by other inmates with a certain respect.
Over the years the tattoos took on a different meaning. They put an emphasis on rebellious attitude”. Ironically, a lot of the inmates' prison break tattoos actually come from the TV show “Prison Break”.
Clown face tattoos on prisoners are usually inked with one happy face and one sad. But make no mistake, there is nothing funny about them. Prisoners believe they are depicting opposite situations, such as happy life before and sad life now’.
In Brazil, this tattoo has a completely different meaning. It means you are a cop killer. Prisoners who have clown face tattoos in Brazil don’t have it easy, as if prison wasn't hard enough...
Angel Forever, Forever Angel
The “Angel Forever, Forever Angel” is a quote often seen as a representation of the ‘Hells Angels’ gang. The AFFA tattoo is popular on the hands of ‘Hells Angels’ members who are in prison.
For some reason, they are very clingy to that tattoo... If someone who is not a member gets this Hells Angel tattoo just because they like it, it’s not going to be pretty when they are caught by an actual member of the gang.
Just like many other prison tattoos, a number usually represents a letter in the alphabet. In this case, the fourteenth letter would represent the letter N, which is used by the Norteno gang AKA Latino Kings that mainly operate in California.
This tattoo often causes prison fights as it’s hated by white supremacists. Those weirdos have a tattoo that is “1488” and they take offense when someone who is a “Latin King" has the number 14 on him...
Spider web tattoos, specifically on the elbow, signifies that the prisoner is serving a very long sentence. Its symbolic meaning is that the prison sentence is like a web being slowly spun.
The gloomy meaning behind this tattoo is liked by white supremacists and they often are those that get this tattoo. But for whatever weird reason they added you have to kill a rival prisoner to “earn the honor” of having this tattoo as if serving a lengthy sentence wasn’t enough.
The five-pointed crown is another gang-related tattoo. Usually, it’s inked by the California gang “The Latin Kings” but other gangs also like it. The five-pointed crown is a common tattoo amongst prisoners because all of those “kings” constantly get locked up.
The five-pointed crown tattoo symbolizes a status level amongst gangsters. If you take a deeper look into its meaning, it signifies loyalty and safety and is usually tattooed on your back or neck.
There is no luck with this one. The shamrock is another favorite tattoo amongst white supremacist gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood. The only meaning behind this tattoo is that it shows that you are in the “brotherhood”.
Letters or numbers can often be found underneath the shamrock as well. Usually, the number ‘666’ or ‘number of the beast’ phrase is tattooed on the same hand as the shamrock. They are just a bit cuckoo...
Evil. Wicked. Mean. Nasty. This is generally an indicator of the type of prisoner a guard will be dealing with. Prisoners usually wear this tattoo to embrace their criminal life and the overall act of being a gangster.
The EWMN tattoo does not represent any particular gang and many gang members with completely different ideologies have them. Usually, they are tattooed on the knuckles, the idea is that this is what you see when you get punched.
The 1488 tattoo represents prisoners who...you guessed it, have links to white supremacist gangs. Often people confuse the meaning with a year. But the ‘14’ relates to the 14-word from some racist quote made by David Lane, a Nazi leader.
And as for the ‘88’, it relates to the letter H in the alphabet, being used twice to represent ‘Heil Hitler’. To those lunatics, Hitler is an idol and nothing is better than getting a tattoo to represent him.
This is not the same as the five-pointed crown, as it is a crown tattooed as a ring. This tattoo was taken from the Irish Claddagh ring with a similar meaning, to show faithfulness and affection.
Members from the same gang use this tattoo to symbolize their friendships and support their beliefs in “brotherhood”. Prisoners believe if someone gets the same tattoo like that one it serves as a sign of friendships and loyalty.
The epaulette tattoo may look strange as a prison tattoo, after all those are the shoulder fitting on police uniforms. But in Soviet Russia, everything was weird including the meaning behind this tattoo.
The tattoo represents the status a prisoner has within the ‘Thieves in Law’ AKA the Russian mob. Different levels of representation such as a ‘captain’, ‘lieutenant’, or ‘colonel’ have different designs. If there are skulls within the epaulettes, this generally means that the person has committed murder before.
Don't think this one has something to do with religion. For whatever weird reason the size of the cross represents your status in a gang. The bigger the cross the higher in seniority you are.
This tattoo, like many other prison tattoos, originated in Russia. But with Russian gangsters being imprisoned in different countries all around the world the tattoo made its way to other subcultures and is now global.
This tattoo is really quite straightforward with its meaning. Whoever has one is saying that he enjoys gambling and the gamble is with his life. Maybe they would have had better luck than ending up in prison if they played their cards right.
And ofcourse in Russia the tattoo has a completely different meaning. Depending on the card that is tattooed, you can understand what crime the prisoner is serving his sentence for.
Dagger In The Neck
You would not want to cross paths with someone who has a dagger in the neck tattoo. This means that the prisoner has killed before and is willing to kill again. Why mess with someone who will easily kill someone?
The drops of blood on the blade show how many people the prisoner has killed. Some versions of the tattoo also mean that the prisoner considers himself killed due to lengthy incarceration.
By now you probably understand that prison tattoo culture has a lot of influence from Russia. If prisoners have images of women tattooed on themselves, it means that they have gone through official admission into the Russian mafia.
Usually, tattoos of women on inmates are done on your chest. Sometimes the pioneers choose to have a tattoo of a rose instead of a woman and it carries the same meaning.
Just like many gang-related tattoos, the MS-13 tattoo can usually be found on an inmate's hands or face. The tattoos are used by the famous El Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha.
Usually, these tattoos are made in blue with a combination of brown and black shading. For those who get the tattoos, they act as a protection badge from rival gangs. The number 13 represents the age a youngster can join the gang.
Lenin And Stalin
A tattoo with the face of Lenin or Josef Stalin was tattooed by some prisoner in the USSR on their chests. Prisoners thought the guards who wanted to shoot at them would think twice about defacing Lenin or Stalin’s image.
Guess what? It did not work out that way for many prisoners, they still got shot... A Lenin or Stalin tattoo was usually combined with other tattoos which added more silly beliefs.
Historically, a chain tattoo would symbolize enslavement, repression, and solitude. And prisoners love them for those reasons. But today chain tattoos don’t only mean that and have a second meaning.
Some people get them after they are released from prison to symbolize that they have been set free. The amount of chain links represents the number of years served behind bars. You would think one would have some smarts and not boast about the time spent in prison...
This tattoo is done by those who are either serving a life sentence or an extremely long sentence that can pretty much be considered a life sentence. The clock with no hands represents someone losing track of time.
Some prisoners get this tattoo on their wrists as if they are wearing an actual watch. Others get the tattoo as a normal wall clock and have it on their back or chest.
You may think a key tattoo could represent something very romantic. Maybe something like a key to someone's heart. But there is no romance here. Prisoners who have a key tattoo belong to a gang called the Black Guerrilla Family.
The gang started out as a movement fighting for African-American rights and turned into a criminal organization over the years. The members believe they are the key to the problems of the African-American community...
Norteno is a type of music genre that originated in northern Mexico. But it means something very different to inmates. Norteno tattoos are worn by prisoners that are related to the Hispanic gangs of California.
Some members will only tattoo a single ‘N’ on their bodies or the number ‘14’ which represents the placing of the letter in the alphabet. Another version of the tattoo is with the use of Roman numerals ‘XIV’.
Russia cat tattoos are also one of the oldest symbols used by criminals that represent an average everyday burglar. For some silly reason, they feel that they have the same characteristics as cats.
You know, quick snatching skills, stealth, persistence, and so on. In Russia, instead of a cat’s image, prisoners sometimes tattoo the word “KOT” which means cat in Russian. We think it’s a bit funny that grown men get cat tattoos.
An Eye For An Eye
An eye for an eye. The idea that one should be punished in a way that corresponds to the way in which they may have hurt or insulted someone else. Criminals seem to really love that idea.
Although it’s not confirmed if that is the real meaning of the ‘eye for an eye’ tattoo worn by prisoners it sure is common among them. Tattoo artists also love the “artistic freedom” they get to make the tattoo as scary as possible.
There are two meanings to the Madonna feeding the child tattoo. One meaning refers to the prisoner feeling content in prison. As if to say he is a child and prions is his feeding mother.
The second meaning is meant to represent the prisoner being in prison from a young age. They are also sometimes called 'children of prison’. Who knew people that commit serious crimes can be such romantics...
Mostly popular within the American prison systems, a gun tattoo shows that the prisoner committed a risky crime to assign a gun. A lot of professionals, if you can call them that, bank robbers get them.
There is a big range of guns out there and they are all different. The options are limitless, you have anything from an AK-47 to Glock 42. This also gives tattoo artists a lot of freedom to come up with different designs.
Many criminal gangs use powerful animals for different symbolic meanings in their tattoos. Each with its own meaning depending on the gang. Lions symbolize power, wolves symbolize leadership, bulls symbolize the fighting spirit, and so on.
Native American gangs often tattoo big animals that are linked to their spiritual beliefs. Often there is a metaphoric element to tattoo which represents something from the prisoner's life. Why no one tattoos cute puppies?!
Russian Cathedral tattoo is commonly used by prisoners who have finished their prison sentence and have been released. The more domes the cathedrals have, the more sentences they have served during their life.
These tattoos are inked almost anywhere on a prisoner’s body. However, because of their size, they are usually tattooed on larger areas of the body, like the back or chest. Viggo Mortensen's character in Eastern Promises is rocking a tattoo like that on his back.
The Valknut is a symbol that is believed to be related to Norse mythology gained popularity as a prison tattoo in the last 2 decades. Prisoners usually tattoo the 3 interlocking triangles.
The tattoo is also sometimes called the "knot of the slain" that belongs to Norse god Odin. The Neo-Nazis, the fools that they are, actually believe in Odin and that he is real. That is why they started getting tattoos of the valknut...
Thieve stars, as the Russian mob calls them, are tattoos that have a long history dating all the way back when Russian Empire had a Tsar. When these eight-pointed stars are placed on prisoners’ shoulders, they represent what rank they are within the organization.
When they are on prisoners’ knees it means that they will not go on their knees for anyone of any authority. Anyone who faced a lengthy sentence and didn’t cooperate with the police in any way got these tattoos.
Nope, this is not another murder tattoo. Prisoners who have skull tattoos often use these as symbols to show that they are not fearful of prison wardens. These skulls are earned when convicts challenge prison guards.
Skulls are a “fan favorite” among the Neo-Natsiz since the SS had a skull symbol for their Panzer Division. They usually add a phrase in German next to the skull tattoo which means “My honor is my loyalty”.
Prisoners get flower tattoos, mainly a rose or sometimes a tulip, as a sign that they were convicted prior to 18 years of age. Just like many other prison tattoos, the Russians often have these.
If you are imprisoned when you are under age, chances are you’ll join a gang. Those that get the flower tattoo usually become gang members when they are in prison. Many Asian gangs also have flower tattoos with the same meaning.
The word “Skinhead” is tattooed by...you guessed it, the white supremacist gang members. As if it wasn’t already clear what they are. The “Skinhead” tattoo is never a standalone tattoo and always comes with other signs or symbols referring to their supremacist “values”.
We can’t really figure out why but for some weird and slightly sick reason white supremacists also like their tattoos where it is visible. Like the face or the entire head!
You are probably thinking this tattoo just means the prisoner has murdered someone. You are not completely wrong, it is just a bit worse. The hooded executioner tattoo means the person has murdered more than one member of the same family.
The victims are usually gang members that cooperated with the police and betrayed another gang member. The person who has the tattoo is making a statement to other gang members, letting them know that he had his payback.
Depending on where and how these are placed, spider tattoos on prisoners have different meanings. The Russians and their weird tattoos… Mostly these tattoos are inked on shoulders and sometimes elbows.
Spider creeping upwards, the convict is still in action, downwards means he retired from crime. If not worn on the shoulder, the tattoo may also be placed on the elbow. The amount of spider web that is tattooed represents how many years have been served in prison.