Street Gang and Prison Gang Tattoos

Why are tattoos used by gangs?

What do gang tattoos mean?

The word tattoo reportedly is derived from the Tahitian word "tatu." Some believe that tattoos go back as long ago as 12,000 BC but in recorded history they can be traced back to approximately the time the great pyramids were being constructed in Ancient Egypt.

Tattoos have long been used to identify people in many cultures. The tattoo culture of the street gangs and the prison gangs of today is no different. Street gang tattoos, as well as prison gang tattoos, are worn by the gang members for several reasons.

First, gang members will frequently have numerous tattoos, particularly if they have spent time in prison. These gang tattoos may include one or more symbols that the gang has adopted as something unique and are used to identify the gang and it’s members. Other gang tattoos might be a tear drop worn under an eye, spider webs to indicate prison time, or a popular phrase such as "Thug Life."

Second, tattoos are worn and used for intimidation. Many members, particularly if the gang has a propensity for violence, will have the gang name tattooed in large bold letters so that other persons or gang members will know what gang the person represents.

Examples of gang tattoos

 Unauthorized Gang Tattoos

Wearing an unauthorized gang tattoo could be hazardous to a person’s health, particularly in prison. Prison gang inmates have been known to remove unauthorized tattoos on non-gang members by cutting the tattoo from the person’s flesh. Another method used for removal of a non-authorized gang tattoo is to  burn the tattoo off of the persons body using a hot iron.

Mistaken Identity

There are numerous examples of innocent persons being attacked and killed by gang members just because the person was wearing clothing and colors of a rival gang. 

Gang members know who their rivals are.  They know the rival gang's symbols and graffiti and they know how to use their own signs and symbols to disrespect rival gangs.  They also know how to identify tattoos of rival gangs.  They use all of this information to disrespect rival gangs to include assaults and murder. 

It is very easy to walk in to a tattoo parlor look at hundreds of tattoo designs and get a  particular tattoo because it may represent your personality, or it is merely something that is appealing to you. Unfortunately, a person may choose a tattoo that is identical or very similar to a known gang tattoo.  Should this individual encounter a gang member who believes the tattoo is that of a rival gang, the gang member may attack the wearer in a violent manner.

Anyone getting a tattoo should be aware of what should not be worn.  Unfortunately, the number of  tattoos that should not be worn seems to be endless.


The photo on left is a lions head worn by a non-gang member.  The photo on the right is a lions head worn by a member of the Almighty Latin Kings gang.

It obvious that the tattoo on the left could be mistaken for a lion head used by the Latin Kings.

Area Code Tattoos

The area code for the city or state where the gang is located is sometimes used as a gang identifier.  Some examples of prominent area codes are 213 (Los Angeles), 415 (San Francisco area), 817 (Fort Worth), 614 (Columbus, OH).

If you suspect that a tattoo may be an area code, use the following link to check it.

Teardrop Tattoo 


Many kids today are wearing teardrop tattoos as a fashion statement or to make them appear tough.


 There is one particular tattoo that has become popular over the years that has become a generic symbol for gang members and non-gang members of all races and ethnicities --- the teardrop tattoo.

The teardrop is said to have originated with Hispanic gangs in California in the 1940's. Others have said that it originated in Mexico and Puerto Rico. Regardless of the origin, over the years, the tattoo has evolved in appearance and meaning.

Originally believed to mean that the wearer had served time in prison, teardrops now mean a variety of things. (See below) The prison time may range from one to ten years.

Also, the Folks and People Nations, two alliances of many gangs, identify everything either to their right or left sides, respectively. The teardrop may be used by persons to identify themselves as a gang member and to show the members allegiance to one nation or the other. Additionally, and unfortunately, many of today’s youths think it is “cool” to emulate what the gangs do. It is a way of showing off for some. As a fad or fashion statement, many have begun to wear the teardrop tattoo which in some areas automatically marks them incorrectly as a gang member. Also, some celebrities not connected with gangs, have gotten the tattoo for their own reasons.

An example of a celebrity who wears two tear drop tattoos is Larry Hughes, a National Basketball League star, who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Hughes lost his brother and to remember him, had two teardrop tattoos placed beneath his left eye.  He states that at the time, he did not realize the gang related significance that the tattoo has. 


Today there are two traditional, very distinct teardrop tattoos - the open teardrop and the closed teardrop.  Originally, the open teardrop meant that the wearer had killed someone and the closed teardrop meant that the wearer had lost a friend or relative.  Today, these meanings have been perverted and the tattoo may or may not represent the original meaning.  What means one thing to one person may mean something totally different to someone else. What matters is the context in which it is worn.  Is it being worn in memory of someone?  Is it being worn as a reminder to others that the wearer is a murderer?  Or is it being worn out of sheer stupidity?

A third type of tear drop tattoo is now being reported.  It is described as a "half" tear drop which is only half filled in with ink.  It is supposed to symbolize the fact that someone close to the wearer was killed and the wearer then killed the assailant.

It is being said that inmates in the Australian penal system, who are child molesters or sexual predators, are forcibly being tattooed with the tear drop tattoo to alert others to the heinous crime committed by the person.

One thing to remember. No one can look at a teardrop tattoo and state positively that the tattoo has a specific meaning. As stated above, there are multiple meanings and only the wearer knows the reason he or she is wearing the tattoo.


The dots are usually in groups of three or five small dot tattoos.  The most common locations are the web of the hands, the wrist and elbows.  For many, three dots in a triangular shape represent the only three places gang members go to - the hospital, prison or grave.

Members affiliated with the Sureņos, or Sur 13, have been known to place three dots on one wrist and a single dot on the other to indicate the number ¨13¨. 

A tattoo of three dots in a triangle, usually found between the thumb and forefinger, has several meanings. For many, three dots in a triangular shape represent the only three places gang members go to - the hospital, prison or the grave. I sometimes refer to the three dots as the 3 I´s of the gang culture: Injury, Incarceration and Interment.  The dots may also stand for "mi vida loca" ("my crazy life"). They may also be referred to as "party dots." And finally, they may represent a gang known as Los Vatos Locos (The Crazy Dudes or Guys) gang. Only the person wearing the dots knows what they mean to him or her.

Along with the pachuco cross, the number 187, and the slang tattoo "Thug Life", the "three dots", referred to as "tres puntos" in Spanish, is a popular "generic" tattoo, particularly among Latino teenagers, and has no positive, direct connection to gang affiliation.

Tattoos - A Law Enforcement Tool

Gang tattoos are an excellent tool for law enforcement and corrections officers to use to identify known or suspected gang members. During any encounter with an individual, whether he or she is a gang member or not, the officer should make every attempt to obtain as much detail as possible about an individuals gang tattoos. Of course the best method of doing this is to photograph the tattoos and either store them in a database or a hard file.

REMEMBER:  Generic type tattoos are not conclusive proof that the person wearing the tattoo is a gang member. Other factors or identifiers may have to be used to identify the person as a member of a particular gang.

California Hispanic tattoos

The link below is an outstanding collection of tattoos used by Hispanic gangs originating in California, and have been known to spread to other parts of the U.S.

Chicago gang tattoos

The following link is a great source for hundreds of Chicago based gang tattoos.

Gang Ink

Recognizing and interpreting tattoos

The web page link below is an excellent web site for assisting in tattoo identification:

NOTE: Sgt Ken Whitley, Corona, CA Police Department (Retired), and owner of the above web site, has an outstanding collection of tattoos on CD-ROM. These tattoo photographs are an excellent tool for identification or training. For further information click onto his web site above and scroll to the bottom of the page.





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This page was last updated on 03/14/2014

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