The Hair-Raising Hidden Meanings of 20 Common Prison Tattoos

Thanks to popular TV shows such as Orange is the New Black, viewers are getting intimate knowledge of life behind bars. And if you’re into prison TV shows, you may have noticed the inmates sporting familiar tattoos. Well, it turns out that penal system ink has hidden meanings. Here are 20 that will send chills down your spine…

20. Playing Cards

Don’t believe what you’ve read in comics such as Batman: you can’t kill someone with playing cards. It’s perhaps why inmates are allowed them, but they’re also a common choice for a prison tattoo. But whether it’s a single card or a deck, it’s safe to assume one thing: the owner likes to gamble.

The person in question might be a fan of games of chance or just consider life as the ultimate gamble. Dig a little deeper into this topic and you’ll discover that meanings are even more specific in the Russian prison system, where each suit represents something different. Diamonds are for snitches, spades are for thieves, clubs are non-specific and hearts represent romance-seekers. Not all tattoos are worn willingly, though…

19. Handless Clock

Clock tattoos aren’t specific to the jail system, so they’re not a sure sign of an ex-inmate. If the clock face doesn’t have hands, though, then it’s more likely a prison tattoo. The clock’s face design itself can vary from simple to elaborate; either way, the symbolism is the same.

In case you haven’t already guessed, it’s a “time has no meaning” kind of deal. The lack of hands represents that the inmate has either spent – or is spending – a lot of time behind bars. Some prisoners even decide to have the tattoo on their wrist to create the illusion of an actual watch.


18. Three Dots

Jail tattoos aren’t actually allowed, which is partly why simple tattoos are common. Inmates can make them with simple equipment and minimal experience. The three dots are a good example of one of these widely-used tattoos. And its meaning is also deceptively complicated, especially when you consider how straightforward the design is.

Three dots can mean one of several things, depending on the prisoner in question. For instance, for some it stands for Christianity’s Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost). Yet more frequently it’s a general gang term. In Spanish it’s mi vida loca which translates as “my crazy life.”


17. Thorned Rose

Outside the jail system many people have rose tattoos: some associate them with certain people in their lives, while others just appreciate the flower and its beauty. So roses aren’t intrinsically a prison tattoo as such, but they do have a special meaning to those behind bars – and this is especially true in certain parts of the world.

You see, rose tattoos are a preferred symbol among Russian and Asian inmates – particularly gang members. To display one with any credence, though, the prisoner has to have suffered an extended period behind bars. Actually, a rose with a stem covered in thorns symbolizes the bearer’s 18th year serving time.


16. Barbed Wire

Another popular design outside the big house, barbed wire tattoos are not uncommon with body art fans. The design looks arguably cool wrapped around an arm or a leg. If you’re in the penal system, though, the prickly sight of a wire metal fence inked on skin has its own symbolism.

Some prisoners serving long sentences use barbed wire tats as a time marker. For each year they add an extra barb onto the fence. And in Russia barbed wire inking on the forehead indicates a life sentence with no chance of early release. So outside jail, that’s one face design you may want to pass on.


15. Five Dots

You’d be forgiven for thinking that five dots have a similar meaning to their three-dot counterparts. Yet the simple combination of spots – which resembles the number five on a die – has a completely different meaning. It also has its own name: the quincunx. Be careful how you say that in polite company!

So you’re probably wondering what the story behind the dots is. Well, the four spots around the center symbolize the prison walls, while the one in the middle is the inmate. Prisoners typically have this inked onto their hand between their thumb and forefingers. That’s because it can have gang implications when displayed on other parts of the body.


14. Epaulette

Don’t worry if you’re unsure what an epaulette is – it’s not a term that crops up in casual conversation. It’s a military word for shoulder decorations. And if a prisoner sports one it means they’re bad news, even among other inmates. Eminent criminals get epaulettes and other military symbolism inked on their bodies to prove their rank.

The epaulette design isn’t just limited to life behind bars, either. Criminals have them tattooed on their shoulders outside of their sentence, too. They often get inked to commemorate a significant accomplishment in their criminal life. But skull epaulettes are among the biggest warning signs, as they’re often the mark of a killer.


13. Chest Cross

If you’re familiar with the aforementioned TV series Orange is the New Black then you know the character Red. She belongs in the Russian mafia, and it wouldn’t be surprising if she had a cross inked on her chest. In fact, it’s a common design on high-ranking Russian mob members.

It’s not limited to the Russian mob either. Any criminal in the upper echelons of organized crime could sport a chest cross tattoo if they have proved themselves worthy. As you may have guessed, the design doesn’t have anything to do with religious symbolism, either. It actually signifies a criminal rank called “Prince of Thieves.” In fact, it’s the highest status a Russian convict can achieve.


12. Clown Faces & Masks

Everyone who likes clowns, raise your hands. What, no one? Admittedly they’re not too popular these days outside circuses and in criminal circles, but for jailbirds it’s another story. This is especially true among gang members, particularly Asian and Latin ones. They have a penchant for tattoos of clowns or clown masks, making them a popular choice for body art.

The faces represent the theater masks of comedy and tragedy and have similar meanings associated with them. This includes “smile now, cry later” and “my happy life, my sad life.” It means that things might be bad now, but they will turn around in the end. Rather upbeat for a gang philosophy, wouldn’t you say?


11. La Eme

Although you might think of gangs as being formed outside jail, the Mexican Mafia is different. You see, it was created by Mexican-Americans behind bars and has since grown to troubling proportions. Now the Mexican Mafia – or La Eme, Spanish for “The M” – is one of the biggest and nastiest American gangs.

Members of La Eme might have those very words or some variant of it tattooed on their skin. The letter M features prominently, but there’s also a more subtle alternative for sneaky prisoners. Instead they get inked with a number 13, because M is the 13th letter of the alphabet.


10. Neck Dagger

It’s not uncommon to see someone sporting a dagger tattoo, but in Russia such a design takes on a different meaning. So if you ever find yourself in the prison system anywhere in the former Soviet bloc – and let’s hope you don’t – then avoid dagger-tattooed prisoners at all costs. This is especially true if the inmate has the design on their neck.

When a Russian prisoner gets marked with a dagger tattoo piercing their neck, it’s a sure sign they’re dangerous. The design symbolizes one of two things: either they’re willing to commit murder or they are a killer for hire. Either way, don’t approach them. In fact, just avoid prison sentences entirely. It’s for the best.


9. Cobweb

Cobwebs are a popular choice of jail tattoo for inmates serving long sentences for obvious reasons. They’re associated with the passage of time, after all. This is especially true if the web’s inked onto the prisoner’s elbow, which is intended to imply inactivity. And what’s a better metaphor for a prisoner than a fly caught in a spider’s web?

On the other hand, a spiderweb tattoo can also indicate its owner’s a gang member. Some inmates choose a web to symbolize how the gang lifestyle’s trapped them, or how they’ve recently been caught up in it. For many initiates a gang’s for life, and they couldn’t escape even if they so desired.


8. Five-Point Crown

Don’t let the five-point crown fool you – it isn’t a show of support for royalty. Instead, this tattoo belongs to members of a huge Chicago-based Hispanic gang called the Latin Kings. What’s more, the crown is often accompanied by the initials ALKN, which stand for the Almighty Latin Kings Nation. That’s the crew’s full name.

As for the crown, the five points on it have genuine significance to Latin Kings members. They stand for the values by which the gang claims to live: righteousness, sacrifice, honor, obedience and love. So unless you’re part of the gang, it’s probably best to pass on that five-point crown design.


7. Birds

Bird tattoos aren’t exclusive to those doing jail time. Sailors also favour swallows, and traditionally got inked when they returned from a long time at sea. But the meaning has seeped into jail culture too thanks to Cockney rhyming slang. It stems from the word “bird lime” which rhymes with “time” and was used to discuss prison sentences.

In deliberately obscure fashion, having “done your bird” means you’ve “done your time,” or served your jail sentence. Hence the choice of a bird tattoo represents freedom. Birds circling the horizon are also a popular choice behind bars. In this latter case, it’s usually given to people who think they deserve freedom.


6. Cats

Cats are nimble, agile and stealthy – which should give you some idea what this tattoo signifies. In fact, there’s even a type of criminal named after a feline: cat burglars. You guessed it, a cat tattoo inside the Russian penal system indicates the owner is a thief. There’s some further nuance to the design, too.

For instance, the number of cats inked on the inmate’s skin indicates if they operated alone or in a group. Likewise, the type of cat and its position on the body also apparently mean different things. Tomcats are supposed to bring good fortune in a thief’s world. Meanwhile, a cat chest tattoo is worn by violent criminals with a grudge against the police.


5. A.C.A.B.

A lot of British criminals behind bars have the initials A.C.A.B. or numbers 1312 (the numbers correspond to the letters in the alphabet) somewhere on their bodies. It could be either a standalone tattoo or integrated with another design and frequently shows up on inmates’ knuckles. It’s actually showing the prisoner’s disdain for the police: it stands for “all cops are b*stards.”

The letters can symbolize more than just the owner’s rebellious nature, too. They can also prove the inmate isn’t afraid to get arrested to protect his gang or partners in crime. Some people claim that A.C.A.B. stands for “always carry a Bible” – one theory is that’s a cover for their bad choice of tat.


4. Finger Crowns and Rings

Due to safety concerns, inmates aren’t allowed much jewelry. Jails only permit prisoners to wear a basic wedding ring and a religious necklace. So it should come as no surprise to find out that it’s common to get a prison tattoo of jewelry. Rings or crowns inked on fingers are among the most commonplace.

The type of tattoo and the finger it’s on also have different symbolism, especially in Russia. Crowns reveal their owner as a high-ranking inmate. A middle finger ring tattoo with a white cross on black indicates a thief. And if a prisoner has a ring finger marked with a white diagonal line on black, they’ve spent time in a penal colony.


3. Asian Gang Tattoos

Unlike in the West, Eastern cultures aren’t that big on inking their skin. It’s seen as somewhat disrespectful to yourself. But that doesn’t mean tattoos are unheard of, and the rebellious aspect of society isn’t above tattooing. And while the practice isn’t exclusive to criminals, gangs often sport tattoos of various designs.

Take the Yakuza, for example: Japanese organized crime gangsters comparable to the Mafia. Yakuza members are famous for their tattoos, and in order to conceal their criminal connections, Yakuza are usually inked in places that can be concealed beneath clothes. Their intricate designs are commonly based on Japanese tradition such as geishas, samurai and mythological creatures. They favor traditional-style art, too.


2. Teardrop Outline

When you think prison tattoos, teardrops are probably one of the first designs that spring to mind. They’re usually on the face so they’re highly visible and they create a distinctive impression. But did you know they’re not inmate-exclusive and their meaning changes from place to place? The level of detail also reveals a lot about the prisoner in jail systems.

Sometimes the teardrop indicates that the prisoner has spent a long time behind bars. But it’s also associated with murder-related symbolism. An outline of a teardrop might indicate that the tat’s owner is seeking revenge on someone who killed their friend. Alternatively, it might mean they have been caught attempting to slay someone themselves.


1. Filled-In Teardrop

Before we get into the meaning of the filled-in teardrop, it’s important to note that it’s not always a prison tattoo. Some high-profile celebrities – particularly on the rap scene – sport teardrop tats. Still, if a teardrop tattoo owner gets jailed without knowing its meaning, their life will be much harder.

You see, in some cases a filled-in teardrop tattoo marks the owner as a murderer. What’s more, the number of tears might indicate how many lives the inmate’s taken. So if you’re trying to choose a tattoo for yourself, don’t copy the celebs on this one. It could be more trouble than it’s worth.