Tattoos are a common part of prison culture. In my experience, the majority of inmates already have ink before they start doing their time, but some don’t get their art work done until they are behind bars.
No, prisons don’t have tattoo parlors where you can drop some cash to get professional work done. Instead, there are talented inmates on the inside who get super creative with random tools they have access to. This is a common side hustle for inmates who need extra income, but it’s a risky practice.
Today, we are going to dive into the world of prison tattoos. How do they do it? What do those prison tattoos mean?
In today’s blog post, I will cover the following topics:
The prison tattoo method has changed over the years, but it always involves the tools that inmates have access to. Back in the 1990s, one inmate — who worked as a shoe shiner for the officers — said he would make ink out of the heels of the warden’s boots. But this incredibly risky method led to inmates constantly getting infections.
“We’d scrape bits off the shoes with a blade —nothing too visible to avoid getting caught. We burned the pieces under some glass, then dissolved it in piss, which turned it into a type of ink,” an inmate named Marius told Vice.
“We would then dip a sewing needle, with thread we got from towels, into our ink. The tattoos were drawn by tearing the skin. After a while, your skin couldn’t take it anymore. But I kept doing it because everybody else was.”
The popular method in today’s prisons involves making a tattooing machine with the motor of an electric toothbrush or razor and the coiled spring from the inside of a pen. Or, inmates will use needles from a sewing kit and ink from a pen.
All of this is against prison rules, and if you get caught there are serious consequences. You can get sent to the hole for weeks, sometimes longer. This will happen if inmates are caught in the act, or if officers find tattoo kits during a search.
There are different reasons that people get tatted up in prison. Some people are just into tattoos as a form of body art and expression, and they would get inked up no matter if they were behind bars or not.
Some people who get prison tattoos are gang members, and they get the ink as an identifying mark for other inmates and guards. The design or picture they choose is usually something that they identify with, but it can just be random images.
Others are trying to look dangerous, and they think getting prison tattoos will result in people leaving them alone, but that doesn’t really work.
The tattoos among the US inmate population do vary from East to West, and federal pens versus state prisons.
Unless an inmate is getting a gang tattoo, the ink they are getting could have a number of different meanings. It’s actually pretty similar to someone getting a tattoo in the free world. But, there are some images that have a pretty universal meaning in the prison world.
A teardrop underneath the eye is a common prison tattoo that usually means a person has killed another. Whether or not that teardrop is filled is often based on how much time the inmate did because of the crime. When it’s not filled in, that can be a sign of an attempted murder.
One teardrop could mean that the inmate is seeking revenge. When it is clear, the revenge is not yet complete. When it’s filled, it was already achieved. Two teardrops may make reference to someone who has been raped in prison.
The meaning of the teardrop tat has changed over the years, and varies based on location. It probably has a completely different meaning for an inmate in his 60s compared to someone in their 20s. The same goes for someone in Chicago as opposed to Los Angeles.
Another common prison tattoo is a clock with no hands. Sometimes, it means that the person is doing life without parole, and will never get out. Other times, it’s just a symbol of a lengthy sentence and how time has no meaning to a prison inmate.
Five dots is a common tattoo, and it’s usually worn on the hand between the thumb and forefinger. The four dots on the outside represent prison walls, and the inner dot is the inmate.
The five dot tattoo can also signify a gang affiliation with gangs that identify with the number 5, like the People Nation gangs. Meanwhile, a three dot tattoo can stand for “Mi Vida Loca.”
The five point crown is a symbol of the Latin Kings gang, which has been around since the 1940s. One of those gang members might also have the ALKN tat, which stands for Almighty Latin King Nation. In women’s prisons, ALQN stands for Almighty Latin Queen Nation.
The image “13 ½” is a reference to 12 jury members, one judge, and a half ass chance of being found not guilty.
White gangs in the western part of the US often have the number 14 tattooed somewhere on their body. That is in reference to the 14 words that these gang members are taught to abide by.
That’s what I’ve been told, but I don’t know that for sure since I was never a member of a white gang.
Apparently, white nationalist David Lane shared his white supremicist philosophy in just 14 words — “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.” It’s amazing what you can learn in prison.
I never saw a 14, but I did meet one girl who had the “AB” tattoo with lightning bolts. This is a representation of the Aryan Brotherhood. Sometimes, the AB is replaced with “1 2”. People in white gangs have also been known to have swastikas tattooed on themselves.
Mexicans with the number 14 in west coast prisons are usually representing the 14th letter of the alphabet, the letter N. Which stands for Neustra Familia, a Chicano American gang that doesn’t get along with the ABs.
A 13 or Sur 13 that is worn by Mexican inmates is a sign of the Mexican Mafia, known as “La eMe.” This is pretty common in California prisons. Another common image is a spider web on the elbow, which stands for five years on the inside.
This list could go on and on…because there are a lot of prison tattoos that inmates come up with. Some just tattoo names of important people on their chest over the heart, to keep those people close to them during their incarceration.
Some might have an image of a clown to represent a crime against the police, or a roadrunner to signify they were caught transporting drugs. The Tasmanian devil is a popular one, too, but I was never told exactly why that is.
The meanings of some prison tattoos are kept a secret, and have serious consequences if those meanings are made public. So, I will just stop right there.
What does your prison tattoo mean? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Prisoners Describe What It's Like To Get A Tattoo Behind Bars https://www.vice.com/en/article/kzzgxm/prisoners-describe-what-its-like-to-get-a-tattoo-behind-bars
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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