Common Prison Tattoos and Their Meanings


Which came first – the tattoo or the criminal? That’s like the chicken or the egg question. In either case, the tattoos worn by prisoners are usually not random ink. They have a special meaning. There are gang tattoos such as those of the Aryan Brotherhood or the Mexican cartels. There are others that symbolize a particular prison or other types of belonging – to a race, a religion, a homeland.

Either way, prison tattoos are made with homemade needles and ink, made from stolen pens and similar office material. The results are pretty fascinating but usually not very pretty, well depends on how you look at it. This is only amplified by the fact that some gangs brand their members with large face tattoos. The reason for doing that is twofold. First of all, so that they can easily be identified by other gang members. This also ensures that the tattooed members will not try to escape from the gang environment or change sides. Tattoos are also some sort of a permanent souvenir that people have from different times in their lives that is always there to remind them of those good/bad or complicated times they went through. Same with prison tattoos, although i’m not quite sure why anyone would want to remind themselves of the time they sat behind bars. Here are the most outrageous prison tattoos designed by dangerous inmates and their hidden meanings. 


The notorious ‘1488’ is the number symbolically used by Neo-Nazis and the Aryan Brotherhood in particular. The number 14 stands for a phrase of 14 words that was uttered by Hitler himself – “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” In case this wasn’t enough, the 88 is a numeric equivalent of HH which stands for – “Heil Hitler”.


The 1488 has gotten some media exposure as its usage spread online over the last couple of years. The 1488 can be often seen in the comment section of extreme right-wing YouTube videos and forums like 4chan.

Large Face Tattoos

Why would anyone get a huge and offensive tattoo on their face? Pentagrams, swastikas and curse words are just a few examples of tats that some prisoners permanently mark their faces with. There is a sort of a rule when it comes to these tattoos. The more face tattoos you have, the longer your sentence is. The violent inmates that have no chance of parole or ever getting out have nothing to lose, while some get a face tattoo to prove their affiliation with a particular gang.


Either way, face tattoos like the one in this photo are generally rare as most prisoners still want to preserve a decent look. But hey, I bet this guy doesn’t have to deal with nearly as much trouble after ‘modifying’ his appearance.


A cobweb prison tattoo on the elbow usually represents a long prison sentence. It represents being stuck in a web of the legal and prison system, without much or any change of getting out. The prisoners who get cobweb tats also want to make it known that they have very little to lose. Prisoners who serve shorter sentences and those with a chance for parole will usually be careful to avoid physical altercations.


They might even let other, more aggressive prisoners disrespect them. A cobweb tattoo is a way to project the opposite attitude. These prisoners have nothing to lose, and they will most likely not back down if challenged by an inmate. This tat is sometimes designed in combination with those that have racist or gang-related underlying meaning. Either way, if you find yourself in prison, try to avoid inmates who are sporting this one!


Teardrops are some of the most common prison tattoos. They’re small and easy to create, and they look pretty cool as well. But a teardrop doesn’t mean that the prisoner is a wuss. Far from that. It represents murder. Either the prisoner is doing time for murder or for attempted murder.


In some cases it can mean a long prison sentence. If there is only an outline of the teardrop, it means that the prisoner is looking for revenge due to a murder of their friend or relative. Either way, teardrops are worn by the most hard-headed criminals.

Three Dots

This tattoo designs can be applied to any part of the body, and it’s usually found on the hands or around an eye. It’s commonly used by Mexican gang members, with each dot symbolizing a word from a phrase – “mi vida loca”, which means “my crazy life”.


Whether they also fans of Ricky Martin is unclear. The three dots can also be a religious symbol, standing for the Holy Trinity (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

Five Dots

Five dots might seem like it’s connected to the tree dots tattoo, but it’s meaning is quite different. It’s also called a “quincunx” and it’s worn between the thumb and the index finger. The dot in the middle symbolizes the prisoner, whereas the 4 dots surrounding it symbolize the prison walls or a cell.


This tattoo means that the prisoner has already been in prison, or that he’s been serving his sentence for a long time already. This tattoo is worn by those prisoners that have a lot of experience with doing time, and they know what it takes to survive in such an environment.

Lightning Bolts

No, this is not the tattoo worn by electricians. This is the famous symbol of the elite military and police forces of Nazi Germany, the SS. The SS chief Heinrich Himmler crafted the SS units as knights of the New Order, drawing inspiration from the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire.


The SS were feared across Europe for their brutality, both on and off the field of battle, and due to their unquestionable loyalty to Hitler and Himmler. Due to this, SS is another common prison tattoo for members of the Aryan Brotherhood, specifically symbolizing racial purity and the enforcement of racial belief in everyday conduct.

Gambling Symbols

Playing cards, dice and similar items are also common prison tattoos. They represent the prisoners view of life as a game. You could say it’s a prison version of “YOLO”. In that sense, prisoners who wear such tattoos are implying that they are willing to retaliate against their enemies regardless of the outcome.


In Russia, playing cards tattoos in particular are used to differentiate the status of gang members, with king being obviously the top of the pile. But these tattoos can sometimes be forcefully drawn on a prisoner, and usually on a visible part of their bodies. For example, the diamond is drawn on the face or the neck, and it represents a snitch. This way other prisoners can know who not to trust.


This tattoo is usually found amongst British prisoners. It stands for “All Cops Are Bastards”. It’s worn on the neck or on the knuckles, and it’s commonly used by Skinheads and similar groups that don’t fret from physical confrontation with the police.


In fact, most of the ACAB wearing prisoners use them to let others know they ended up in prison for protecting their crew, either directly in a fight against cops or by refusing to snitch on them.

A Clock

Time is a strange concept in prison, especially for those serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Just imagine having the same routine day-in-day-out for 50 years or more? Every second of every day is spent in a single facility and the changes in the outside world have no impact on your whatsoever.


Many prisoners say that time flies fast in prison, because you actually lose track of time, and days pass in a misty haze. On top of that, time is the only thing that a prisoner has. It’s his only possession. That’s my personal take from watching prison documentaries and reading books on prison experiences, but the meaning of this tattoo can probably be different for each inmate.

Snake Tattoo

A snake around the neck symbolizes drug addiction. This is a Russian prisoner, and according to his trousers, he is officially an osobo opasnim retsidivistom’ which could be translated as ‘a very dangerous person’. He is part of a maximum security prison without the possibility of parole.


The prisoners who get this tagline and end up in Russian maximum security prison usually have a history of violence against other prisoners, and have been convicted for the worst offences on the outside, such as murder or pedophilia.

Eyes on The Stomach

This Russian prisoner has a couple of interesting tattoos. The largest one is the eyes on the belly, which represent homosexuality. He also has stars on his shoulders, which means that he is a person of authority within the prisoner’s hierarchy.


The medals on his chest represent defiance against the Soviet system, because those medals were given to military officers during the time of the Russian Empire.

Barbed Wire

A tattoo of a barbed wire across the forearm would look pretty cool even in the outside world, but it gets a special significance in prison culture, especially in Russia. It means that the prisoner is serving a life sentence.

In case the tattoo is worn on some other part of the body, it signified the number of years that person has been in jail.


Just like the Three Dots tattoo, Valknut also has a religious significance. But Valknut is a Nordic pagan symbol that represents strength and honor.

As such, these interlocking triangles are proudly worn by neo-Nazis and white supremacist prison gangs.

Five Pointed Crown

This is a symbol of one of the largest street gangs in the US, the Latin Kings. The Five Pointed Crown is usually a large tattoo worn on the back or on the neck.


This is one of the more complex prison tattoos, especially considering the fact that it can, and usually is, modified with jewelry and various other features including the acronym ALKN, which stands for “Almighty Latin Kings Nation”. If your cellmate happens to have a Five Pointed Crown, be sure not to argue with him about who gets the top bunk.


It seems like the hardcore criminals are taking the best tattoos. This is another one closely associated with the Aryan Brotherhood. It can include various symbols and letters, most notably the numbers of the Beast – 666.


If you happen to bump into a fella with a shamrock on his shoulder, just apologize and walk away. Anything else could have detrimental effects for your “general wellbeing” (if ya know what I mean).


You’ve probably heard of MS-13 already. It’s one of the largest and most dangerous gangs in the United States. It predominantly consists of El Salvadoran immigrants and its traditional base is in Los Angeles.


The truth is that MS-13 members have a really hard time staying on the streets, and many of its 70 000 members are behind bars. They use huge tattoos such as this one and facial ones as well to recognize each other and to prove their loyalty.

Just the Letter M

It doesn’t take much to get recognition and respect in jail. You don’t have to go out of your way to punch the strongest kid in class. Just show them an ‘M’ tattoo and you’re set.


This tattoo represents members of the Mexican Mafia, one of the most brutal criminal organizations in Mexico and the United States associated with drug trade, human trafficking, kidnappings and other hardcore criminal activities.

Mythical Creatures

Many prisoners have tattoos of demons, dragons and various mythological creatures. These tattoos are not associated with any particular gang, and they’re rather an exposition of the mindset or the inner reality of the prisoner.


Basically, it makes them look tougher and the tats look pretty cool as well. Since these hardcore tattoos are not trendy in mainstream society any longer, the prison population is using them even more to distinguish themselves and showcase their darker nature.

Eyes on The Back of The Arm

One of the biggest fears that prisoners face is getting attacked from the back. That’s usually how serious incidents in prisons happen, without the victim suspecting the attack. Usually a “shank”, which is a sharp tool made from various allowed items such as a tootbrush or a pen is used, and it can be fatal indeed.


The eyes on the back of the arm signify the prisoners cunning and experience in protecting himself from surprise attacks. It’s a fair warning, but whether the prisoners would agree or be willing to challenge the claim is another story.

Number 14

The Aryans are not the only ones that use number 14 as a symbol. The Norteno gangs is the largest gang in northern California, and the letter N just so happens to be the 14th letter of the alphabet.


Very cheeky indeed, but I’m not sure if the Aryans are happy about their symbol being misused like that.


Believe it or not, biker gangs are still a thing. In fact, they make over 5% of prisoners in large prison facilities of the central US. Hells Angels are a particularly troublesome biker gang, and AFFA is their tattoo of choice.

It means “Angels Forever, Forever Angels”. Bikers are known for extreme sense of loyalty, and they are ruthless when it comes to punishing snitches, which gives this tattoo its true meaning.

The Russian Tattoos

Some of the toughest jailbirds come from Eastern Europe, and Russia in particular, where criminal activity has been running rampant for decades. In fact, during the 70s and 80s, prisoners in Russia had very intricate tattoos that could have multiple layers of meaning. This was due to the fact that the communist government at the time was locking up men for even the smallest offences.


So for example a tattoo of a church represented a thief, medals on the chest represented a political crime against the Soviet system, and a dagger on the neck symbolized a murder committed in jail. This tradition of complicated tattoos still lives on in the Russian prisons to some extent.


VL is a tattoo worn by various Spanish-speaking gang members and regular prisoners as well. It stands for “Vida Loca”, so it’s similar to the three dots.


This is usually a larger tattoo, drawn across the chest or on the back.

Clown Faces

Smiling and frowning clown faces are a popular tattoo choice amongst all prisoners. It’s meaning is more or less obvious.


It depicts two sides of life, and the wheel of fortune that is bound to change our luck at some point. Who would know this better than hardcore prisoners?


EWMN stands for “evil, wicked, mean and nasty”. That pretty much sums up my ex. Just kidding. On the other hand, this is probably a helpful tattoo. It gives a good warning to the rest of the inmates.


The bad thing is that the tattoo is usually drawn on the knuckles, so you get to see it properly only when its already travelling to your face.


The barbarian raiders from Scandinavia have always captivated the imagination of those who wish to uphold manly virtues in one way or another. The Aryan Brotherhood uses various Nordic mythological symbols for their tattoos and Viking imagery is part of that as well.


Odin and Thor are the most likely representatives of the Nordic pantheon on the flesh of Aryan gang members, as they represent strength and glory of a warrior mindset.

Birds And Swallows

Birds on ones hand mean that the person has done time in the past. These tattoos are most commonly found amongst prisoners in England. .


The reasoning behind them is that a bird is set free from a cage, which alludes to a ‘jailbird’. Also, the saying ‘done your bid’ is similar to ‘done your bird’, especially with particular English accents

Chest Tattoos

Large tattoos on chest are very popular in Russian prisons, and they usually depict some mythological or religious symbol. Having a cross on the middle of the chest is a tattoo worn by the higher-ups in many gangs, who have the rank “Prince of Thieves”.


That is also the highest rank that a convict can achieve within the prison group. Some other popular chest tattoos are bells which symbolize freedom, and a tiger, which symbolizes aggression against policemen and authority in general.

Enchained Blade

Having a blade in chains or with cuffs as a tattoo can have various meanings, but many inmates associate it with being a dangerous person who is currently unable to act upon his true nature.


It is usually worn by inmates who have a history of violence, either on the outside or within the prison walls.

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