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Prison tattooing

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Tattoos on the back of a Dead Man Incorporated gang member

Prison tattooing is the practice of creating and displaying tattoos in a prison environment. Present-day American and Russian prisoners may convey gang membership, code, or hidden meanings for origin or criminal deeds. Lack of proper equipment and sterile environments lead to health risks such as infection or disease (hepatitis C, HIV) from contaminated needles.[1]


Whilst not illegal, tattooing in United States prisons is against institutional rules and is therefore unregulated.[citation needed] The inmates do not have the proper equipment necessary for the practice. Inmates find ways to create their own tattooing devices out of their belongings and found materials. Improvised tattooing equipment has been assembled from materials such as mechanical pencils, magnets, radio transistors, staples, paper clips, or guitar strings.[2][better source needed] In addition to the tattooing equipment, the ink utilized also needs to be improvised—potentially consisting of ink taken from pens, melted plastic, soot mixed with shampoo, and melted Styrofoam. Prison tattoos are not generally applied free of charge; they are usually done in exchange for food, stamps, cigarettes, phone time, canteen items, or favors, such as sex or targeted violence.[citation needed]


There are many different symbols and numbers that represent multiple gangs or groups. Certain images, like spider webs, can represent the length of sentences. The well-known teardrop tattoo can signify that the wearer was raped while incarcerated[3][4] or, reportedly particularly in West Coast gang contexts, that the wearer has killed someone.[5]

Tattoos are also used to communicate who the inmates are as people—for example, white supremacists will display prominent tattoos to show their beliefs. Some common symbols used in this manner are: the percentile 100%, a white supremacist indicator of racial purity; Valknuts; swastikas.[6] Runic insignia of the Schutzstaffel ("lightning bolts") are sometimes awarded to members of white gangs for assigned assaults on other races.[7]

Three dots arranged as a triangle (∴) mean "mi vida loca" or "my crazy life" to Mexican inmates linked to the Mexican Mafia, while four dots (∷) have the same meaning, but are found on Mexican gang members associated with the Nuestra Familia;[8] a clock with no hands represents "doing time"; spider webs are a symbol of being trapped; or the number 13 to signify being unlucky.

One common prison tattoo is the five dots tattoo, a quincunx usually placed on the hand, with different meanings in different cultures.

Mostly seen in the UK but used elsewhere too, four dots tattooed across the knuckles stand for ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards). Or a dot on each hand in between the thumb and forefinger—one meaning going into prison, and one meaning they have completed their sentence.

In Ireland, a common tattoo ex-inmates give themselves is a simple dot placed under the eye using Indian ink, colloquially known as a "jail dot."

A Borstal dot, a dot under an eye, also meant doing time, but this tattoo has become a lot less common since Borstals were abolished. Another less common prison tattoo dates back to Borstals, which earned itself the name the "Borstal glove," is the back of a criminal's hand outlined and filled in by Indian ink.

A spider web usually located on the elbow, symbolizes time served in prison.[9]


Since the tattoo machines are homemade and efficient means of sterilization are not available, there are many health risks involved. Deadly diseases like hepatitis and HIV/AIDS can be passed from one person to the next through shared needles.[citation needed] Also, the makeshift ink can damage the skin, cause permanent scarring, or contain harmful chemicals.[10] Tattoo equipment is also considered contraband, and tattooing can be considered by prison officials to be a punishable form of self-mutilation. In 2011, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reclassified tattooing as a high severity prohibited act.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hellard, Margaret E. (September 2007). "Tattooing in prisons—Not such a pretty picture". American Journal of Infection Control. 35 (7): 477–480. doi:10.1016/j.ajic.2006.08.002.
  2. ^ "Prison Tattoos". Convictedartist.com. Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  3. ^ McClelland, John (12 April 2010). "Four Days in the Oaxaca State Prison". mexconnect.com. Retrieved 3 November 2016. the victim of rape is tattooed with a teardrop below the eye by the offending party
  4. ^ "Teardrop Tattoo Meaning". Tattoos With Meaning. a way of "marking" an inmate as property of another person or for humiliation; a face tattoo cannot be covered up or hidden.
  5. ^ Ferinos, Miss (October 17, 2022). "Tattoo Numbing Cream". Retrieved October 17, 2022.[better source needed]
  6. ^ "A Visual Database of Extremist Symbols, Logos and Tattoos". Adl.org. Archived from the original on 2012-08-05. Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  7. ^ "Robert Gumpert – American Prison Tattoos". 8 July 2010.
  8. ^ "15 prison tattoos and their meanings". CorrectionsOne. Retrieved 2017-02-14.
  9. ^ Atkinson, Michael (2003). Tattooed : the sociogenesis of a body art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 40. ISBN 0802085687.
  10. ^ Beth S, M.D. "Prison Tattoos". Tattoos.lovetoknow.com. Retrieved 2012-08-04.
  11. ^ "Inmate Discipline Program" (PDF). Federal Bureau of Prisons. 8 July 2011. p. 48.