what are the meanings of prison tattoos

What Are the Meanings of Prison Tattoos

Prison tattoos have long been a significant aspect of inmate culture, serving as symbols of identity, affiliation, and personal experiences within the confines of prison walls. These tattoos are etched onto the skin of incarcerated individuals and can hold profound meanings. In this article, we will explore the history, symbolism, common designs, and misconceptions surrounding prison tattoos.


When we think of tattoos, we often associate them with self-expression and personal choice. However, in the prison environment, tattoos take on a deeper significance. For inmates, these markings become a visual language, conveying messages about their affiliations, accomplishments, and even their criminal history. Each tattoo tells a story, and understanding the meanings behind them can provide insights into the complex world of prison life.

History of Prison Tattoos

The practice of tattooing has existed for thousands of years, with various cultures employing it for different purposes. In the context of prisons, tattoos gained popularity as a means of identification and self-expression among inmates. Historically, prisoners used crude tools, such as improvised needles and ink made from soot or other available materials, to create their tattoos.

Symbolism in Prison Tattoos

  1. Gang Affiliation: Many prison tattoos are associated with gang culture. These tattoos serve as markers of loyalty and belonging. Different designs and symbols represent specific gangs or criminal organizations. Gang-related tattoos can indicate an inmate’s allegiance and may even display their rank within the gang hierarchy.
  2. Criminal Achievements: Some prisoners use tattoos to showcase their criminal history or past actions. These tattoos often depict details like the number of years served, the type of crimes committed, or significant events in the inmate’s criminal journey. Such tattoos can serve as badges of honor or warnings to others.
  3. Personal Identity: Prison tattoos can also reflect an individual’s personal identity and values. They may represent aspects of one’s life before incarceration, cultural or religious beliefs, or personal milestones. Tattoos of loved ones’ names or images are common, acting as a reminder of the outside world and the people an inmate cares about.
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Common Prison Tattoo Designs and Their Meanings

  1. Teardrop Tattoo: The teardrop tattoo is one of the most recognizable prison tattoos. It typically signifies that the wearer has committed a murder. The number of teardrops can indicate the number of victims or the severity of the crime.
  2. Spider Web Tattoo: A spider web tattoo, often found on the elbow or neck, represents time spent in prison. Each ring of the web symbolizes a year, with each strand indicating months incarcerated. It signifies the wearer’s extensive experience behind bars.
  3. Barbed Wire Tattoo: The barbed wire tattoo denotes imprisonment and the hardships associated with it. It signifies the wearer’s struggle and the lengths they had to go through while incarcerated.
  4. Clock without Hands Tattoo: A clock without hands typically represents an indefinite or life sentence. It indicates that the wearer is facing a long period of incarceration without the possibility of release.
  5. Five Dots Tattoo: This tattoo, consisting of five dots arranged in a square, has different interpretations depending on location and personal significance. It can indicate that the wearer is “doing time” or serve as a symbol of defiance against authority.
  6. Playing Card Tattoos: Playing card tattoos often reflect an inmate’s involvement in gambling or hustling within the prison system. Specific cards, such as the ace of spades or the queen of hearts, can carry additional meanings within certain gangs or subcultures.
  7. Swastika Tattoos: While highly controversial, swastika tattoos are sometimes seen in prison. They are associated with white supremacy and racism, often indicating affiliation with hate groups.
  8. Cross Tattoos: Cross tattoos in prison can hold different meanings, ranging from religious beliefs to affiliation with certain gangs or ideologies. It is essential to consider the context and accompanying symbols when interpreting cross tattoos in a prison setting.
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Prison Tattoo Removal and Cover-Up

In some cases, inmates may seek to remove or cover up their prison tattoos. Prisoners who aim to distance themselves from their past affiliations or criminal activities might opt for tattoo removal or cover-up procedures. Tattoo removal techniques, such as laser treatment, can gradually fade the ink, while cover-up tattoos use new designs to camouflage the existing ones.

Misinterpretation and Stereotypes

It is crucial to approach prison tattoos with caution and avoid making assumptions based solely on their appearance. While certain designs have common associations, not all inmates conform to these stereotypes. Tattoo meanings can vary from one individual to another, and some tattoos may even have personal significance unrelated to criminal activity. Stereotyping based on tattoos can perpetuate harmful biases and hinder the process of rehabilitation and reintegration.


Prison tattoos serve as powerful symbols within the incarcerated community. They communicate complex messages about identity, affiliation, and personal experiences. Understanding the meanings behind these tattoos provides insight into the unique world of prisons and the individuals who inhabit them. However, it is important to remember that tattoos do not define a person entirely, and each inmate’s story goes beyond the ink on their skin.


Q: Are all prison tattoos related to criminal activities? A: While many prison tattoos are associated with criminal affiliations or achievements, not all tattoos in prison have criminal connotations. Some tattoos represent personal beliefs, cultural heritage, or serve as memorials to loved ones.

Q: Can inmates get tattoos while in prison? A: In many prisons, tattooing is illegal and strictly prohibited. However, illicit tattooing can still occur within prison walls using makeshift tools and unsanitary conditions. This underground practice poses significant health risks.

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Q: Are prison tattoos permanent? A: Prison tattoos, like any other tattoos, are typically permanent. However, inmates who wish to remove or cover up their tattoos can explore options such as tattoo removal procedures or cover-up tattoos.

Q: Do all prison tattoos have standardized meanings? A: While certain symbols and designs often carry common meanings, interpretations can vary among individuals and different prison environments. The significance of a tattoo may also change over time or differ between gangs or subcultures.

Q: Are there any rehabilitation programs related to tattoo removal in prisons? A: Some correctional facilities offer tattoo removal programs as part of their rehabilitation efforts. These programs aim to help inmates distance themselves from their past criminal associations and facilitate their reintegration into society.

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