Tattoos are used among criminals to show ownership of gangs and record the wearer's personal history - such as his or her skills, specialties, accomplishments and convictions. They are also used as a means of personal expression. Certain designs have developed recognized coded meanings. The code systems can be quite complex and because of the nature of what they encode, the tattoos are not widely recognized.
Britain and Ireland
A.C.A.B. is an acronym
often integrated into prison tattoos
in the United Kingdom
. It is most commonly rendered with one letter between the knuckle
and first joint of each finger
, sometimes as symbolic small dots with or without the accompanying letters. A.C.A.B. can stand for All Coppers Are Bastards, or Always Carry A Bible
, depending on who is asking and whether the bearer is trying to make a good impression. The British Oi! Punk
band, the 4-Skins
popularized the acronym A.C.A.B. in their 1970's song of the same name. It is currently in common usage as a phrase and tattoo amongst the radical European football fans known as Ultras
. Bohemians Firm the BSC support tattoos of the slogan. A similar tattoo consists of the letters A.P.A.B. (All Pigs Are Bastards, "pig" in this context being derogatory slang term for police officer).
The Borstal mark (or "Borstal spot") is an Indian ink dot, usually located between the thumb and forefinger of the right hand. Borstals were UK youth detention centers, and the mark was traditionally obtained during an offender's first period of imprisonment. An older, now rarely seen, version was to have the dot on the left cheekbone. The borstal mark has been considered a status symbol among some criminals. The "Borstal Glove" consists of a tattooed outline of the back of the hand.
Prisoners who were transported from Britain to Australian penal colonies
between 1787 and 1867 were sometimes tattooed with marks intended to signify disgrace, for example D for deserter. However, prisoners often modified these tattoos to conceal the original design or to express wry or rebellious messages.
A tattoo of three dots in a triangle, usually found between the thumb and forefinger, or the bottom corners of the eyes, stands for "mi vida loca
" ("my crazy life"), or the three magor connections of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Along with the pachuco cross, it is a popular "generic" tattoo among Latino
teenagers, and may or may not be direct connection to gangs. The tattoo has also been adopted by Vietnamese
teenagers, along with the similar interpretation of "tôi không cần gì cả
" ("I need nothing"). A teardrop tattoo
is said to indicate that the wearer has killed
someone or a friend of his/hers was killed in prison. It is worn by the eye.
Other common tattoos are names of relatives or gang members, symbols of aggression (such as skulls), tattoos advertising a particular skill, or (among Latino prisoners) religious imagery. A tattoo of a clock with no hands is often found on the upper arm of a convict, meaning "until the end of time" (life sentence).
A tattoo of a shamrock
is associated with the white supremacist prison gang
known as the Aryan Brotherhood
. But many people with Irish descent who are not at all affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood often have shamrock tattoos. These people who are jailed are forced to cover these tattoos by the AB as they aren't allowed to wear the AB tattoo even though it is generally perceived as an Irish symbol.
Inside each of the three leaves of the shamrock is often found the number six. St. Patrick used the shamrock to teach ancient druids the holy trinity, and by adding a 6 in each leaf the Aryan Brotherhood makes a comment of turning good to evil. They are also known to hide the 666 or the letters "AB" in other, more mundane tattoos. The Aryan Brotherhood is also known to use 12 as an identifier, with the 1 symbolizing the letter A, and the 2 symbolizing the letter B. Another white supremacist gang, the Aryan Circle, uses "13" as their symbol, with the same derivation.
A tattoo of the number 13 might indicate membership of the Mexican Mafia or just being of Mexican descent. Mara Salvatrucha
13(MS13) uses "13" as a form of respect to the Mexican Mafia(La Eme) and Sureño 13 because they are of Central American origin, not Mexican. Because many Central Americans began moving into southern California, the gang was created for protection purposes against the Mexican gangs that outnumbered them. Sureños
, created in the California prison system to show separation between Southern Californians from Northern Californians. Blue is used by 13 and red by 14. The 13 or X3 stands for the 'M' in Mexican Mafia, M being the thirteenth letter of the alphabet. The Mexican Mafia, called La EME, and affiliated with the Sureños, uses a double M insignia or a hand (usually black).
A tattoo of the number 14 or four dots (::) is associated with the prison gang Nuestra Familia
, which is associated with the Northern California street gang the Norteños
. The Sureños and Norteños are sworn enemies both in prison and on the streets.
It is a common practice for Californian street gangs of all races and ethnic backgrounds to have the telephone area code
of their neighborhood tattooed (e.g. 213, 818, 510). This practice is also common place in New Mexico
where many gang members display the state's original area code (505). With the frequent changes in California area codes, this can quickly become outdated.
Russian criminal tattoos, as depicted in the movie Eastern Promises
, have a complex system of symbols which can give quite detailed information about the wearer. Not only do the symbols carry meaning but the area of the body on which they are placed may be meaningful too. The initiation
tattoo of a new gang member is usually placed on the chest
and may incorporate a rose
. A rose on the chest is also used within the Russian Mafia
. Wearing false or unearned tattoos is punishable by death in the criminal underworld. Tattoos can be voluntarily removed (for loss of rank, new affiliation, "life style" change, etc.) by bandaging magnesium powder onto the surface of the skin, which dissolves the skin bearing the marks with painful caustic burns. This powder is gained by filing "light alloy" e.g. lawnmower casing, and is a jailhouse commodity.
Tattoos done in a Russian prison have a distinct blueish color and usually appear somewhat blurred because of the lack of instruments to draw fine lines. The ink is often created from burning the heel of a shoe and mixing the soot with urine, and injected into the skin utilizing a sharpened guitar string attached to an electric shaver.
In addition to voluntary tattooing, tattoos are used to stigmatize and punish individuals within the criminal society. They may be placed on an individual who fails to pay debts in card games, or otherwise breaks the criminal code, and often have very blatant sexual images, embarrassing the wearer. The victim of a forcibly applied tattoo is nevertheless required to pay the tattoo artist for his work.
Tattoos on the forehead are usually forcibly applied, and designed both to humiliate the bearer and warn others about him or her. They frequently consist of slurs about the bearer's ethnicity, sexual orientation, or perceived collusion with the prison authorities. They can indicate that the bearer is a member of a political group considered offensive by other prisoners (e.g. Vlasovite), or has been convicted of a crime (such as child rape) which is disapproved of by other criminals.
Tattoos that consist of political or anti-authoritarian statements are known as 'grins'. They are often tattooed on the stomach of a vor v zakone, as a means of acquiring status in the criminal community. A Russian criminologist, Yuri Dubyagin, has claimed that, during the Soviet era, there existed 'secret orders' that an anti-government tattoo must be 'destroyed surgically', and that this procedure was usually fatal. Consequently, such tattoos were also sometimes applied forcibly to the back of a violator of the 'thieves' code', as punishment.
The four suits:
- Spades - the "suit of thieves".
- Clubs - a "criminal" suit that represents a sword (mostly ex-warriors).
- Diamonds - the "chummy suit" (i.e. stool pigeons and informers). This suit is usually forcibly applied.
- Hearts - a sexual symbol. It marks the wearer out as a "passive homosexual"/sex object within the prison/sex toy.
- Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Danzig Baldaev, ISBN 3-88243-920-3
- Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia v2 Danzig Baldaev, ISBN 0-9550061-2-0
- Russian Prison Tattoos: Codes of Authority, Domination and Struggle Alix Lambert, ISBN 0-7643-1764-4
- The Mark of Cain (2000), film on Russian criminal tattoos; DVD, ASIN B0011UBDV8