Overview of Gang Tattoos

Gang Tattoos are a long-practiced custom throughout the world. Almost every gang, inside and outside the United States, has some symbol to show others of gang membership. Two of the most infamous gangs, the Vor v Zakone (also known as the Russian Mafia) and the Mexican Mafia, are prime examples of what gangs expect their members to tattoo on themselves.

My thesis is 'Gang tattoos in the Russian Mafia are vastly different than gang tattoos in the Mexican Mafia.' Tattoos done in Russian prisons are often done with extreme detail and care. Russian gangs members often devote themselves entirely to the gang, body and all, forsaking all friends and family members. Russian gang members, specifically the Vor v Zakone, cite multiple meanings to their tattoos; they are a highly secretive group. Gang members in the United States get gang tattoos to show membership. Many of the tattoos are simply symbols of membership with one specific meaning. Some of the tattoos are done in shoddy prison conditions by untrained "artists." In this blog, I will show the differences between the two groups of people and how gang tattoos can lead to stigmatization, regardless of ethnicity.

There are gang tattoos that most people would recognize as affiliation with a certain gang membership, such as the Aryan Brotherhood's tattoos. The most prominent Aryan Brotherhood tattoo is a swastika along with 'AB' embedded on a shamrock, as seen below. 

The numbers 666 can usually be found
 on the leaves of the shamrock

 Another tattoo that is popular among gang members and other criminals is the tear-drop below the eye. This particular tattoo has various meanings, depending on the person receiving the tattoo. Some people associate the tattoo with the "West Coast" meaning - that an individual has killed someone before. The tattoo has shifted from the original meaning and has opened to many new meanings. Other meanings of the tattoo include mourning the loss for a loved one or having served a long prison sentence (or a loved one's prison sentence). The tattoo also changes meanings depending on if the tear-drop is filled in or not. The tear-drop tattoo can also be used as a gang identifier - if it is under the left eye it meant you were a Blood or People's Nation; under the right eye meant Crip or Folk Nation.

Popular rapper Lil' Wayne sports the tattoo
below his right and left eyes

What happens to prison inmates with gang tattoos once they get released? Having gang tattoos visible to the public does not help the image of "ex-convict." There have been a few examples of this problem recently in the news. There have been a few men on trial for various crimes who have very visible tattoos. It seems that the juries in these trials have been prejudiced when coming to decisions about the crimes. One court went so far as to cover up the defendant's tattoos (although you can clearly still see the facial ones).

Sources used on this page: