7 Most Notorious Prison Tattoos & What They Mean

RealClear Contributor


Prison tattoos are an infamous, and sometimes integral, part of prison life— They can symbolize toughness or refusal to accept authority. They can also be gang symbols or racist signs.

Prison tattoos are done in the most primitive and rudimentary of ways— With home-made needles and tattoo guns. The "needle" might be part of a paper clip, a staple or a bit of metal guitar string. An empty ballpoint pen holds the needle. The device may be rigged up to a small motor which makes it move up and down like a professional tattoo gun.

If you decide to get any of these notorious prison tattoos (although I can't imagine why you would) and are currently NOT incarcerated, please see a tattoo professional.


7. Teardrop

One of the most common criminal tattoos is the teardrop underneath the eye, think Lil Wayne. 

The most widely accepted meaning of the teardrop is the wearer has killed someone. The teardrop can also mean that the wearer is mourning the loss of a family member. A clear teardrop, like the one pictured, can mean that the wearer has committed an attempted murder, or alternatively, that a close friend or family member was killed and the wearer is seeking revenge.

6. Clock with No Hands

Probably the most obvious and transparent tattoo meaning here; a tattoo of a clock with no hands means 'doing time' and is representative of a long prison sentence. 

Prison inmates have an interesting view of time, especially those serving long sentences. Many prisoners view time as somewhat meaningless, which is what this tattoo is meant to represent. 

5. 5 Point Crown

The 5 point crown is a symbol of the Latin Kings gang, one of the biggest hispanic gangs in the US, which originated in 1940s Chicago.  The crown tattoo will often be accompanied by the letters ALKN, which means Almighty Latin Kings Nation. The crown has five points because the Latin Kings are an affiliate of the People Nation network of gangs, which is represented by the number 5.

4. Aryan Brotherhood

The shamrock is a common image in tattoos worn by members of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang related to the Neo-Nazis. There are many ways to denote the Aryan Brotherhood, including  the letters AB, the numbers 12, representing the first and second letters of the alphabet. The number of the beast, 666, is also commonly used in Aryan Brotherhood tattoos.

3. 3 Dots

The 3 dots tattoo, worn either on the hand or near the eye, are another super recognizable prison tattoo. The dots represent the phrase "Mi Vida Loca," or "My Crazy Life." The tattoo can be found on many Hispanic inmates and does not mean affiliation with any particular gang, and they also carry religious meaning, representing the Holy Trinity.

2. MS 13

The MS 13 stands for Mara Salvatrucha, a large Latino gang notorious for its ruthlessness and violence. MS 13 originated in Los Angeles, but now operates across the Americas. In addition to tattoos on the body, MS 13 members often sport intricate face tattoos.


EWMN stands for “Evil, Wicked, Mean, Nasty.” It does not represent affiliation with any gang, more the demeanor of the prisoner. These tattoos are frequently given in prison and are commonly inked across the inmates' knuckles of their dominant hand so it’s the last thing someone sees before they get knocked out. 

Bonus! Cross on the Chest (Russian)

In the Russian prison system, a cross tattoo on the chest symbolizes a "Prince of Thieves." This is the highest rank a Russian convict can achieve, and are usually worn by higher ranks of the Russian mob or KGB.

Russian convicts have one of the most intricate tattoo cultures of any group of people. There are literally dozens of Russian criminal tattoos, each with its own distinct meaning. For example, a man with stars on his knees does not bow down to any authority, which I am sure Putin loves.



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