Common Prison Tattoos and What They Mean

Prison are usually applied with crude, homemade needles and ink made from stolen pens or other materials. As such, they’re often green or blue, with little color or variation in tone. But what prison lack in beauty, they make up for in story. The tattoos a prisoner wears tells his or her story, indicates what gang they’re affiliated with, where they’re from, and what they did. Some simply indicate a disrespect for authority, others in prison show that the wearer is a hardcore member of the Mexican Mafia or Aryan Brotherhood and is not to be messed with.

Looking for prison meanings? Here are some of the most common prison designs created by criminals, each with their own meaning and story.


A seemingly innocuous number, “1488” actually has a very specific meaning – and it’s a nasty one. The number 14 stands for “14 words” or the mantra of the Aryan Brotherhood – the 14 word phrase “we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The 88 is the equivalent of HH, or “Heil Hitler.”


A cobweb tattoo on the elbow usually represents a long prison term, as if the wearer is caught in the web of a spider and will never get out. Cobwebs can also have racist connotations, usually if applied under the arm and worn by someone with other race-based tattoos. They can even mean that the wearer has killed a person of another race, but not always.


A common and easily applied prison tattoo, the teardrop has a number of different meanings. Traditionally, it means the wearer has killed someone, but this is not always the case. It can mean a lengthy prison sentence, or, when simply the outline of a teardrop, can mean the wearer is in prison for attempted murder. Or it can mean the wearer had a friend murdered and will be out for revenge.

Three Dots

Three dots around the eyes usually signify some kind of allegiance with a Mexican gang – meaning in Spanish, “mi vida loca” or “my crazy life.” They can also have religious significance, standing for the Holy Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

Five Dots

Not to be confused with the three dots tattoo, the five dots tattoo is worn between the thumb and forefinger and is also called the “quincunx.” It signifies that the wearer has done time, with the dot in the center representing the wearer, and the other dots the prison walls.

Lightning Bolts

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Twin lightning bolts tattooed on a prisoner usually signify allegiance to the Aryan Brotherhood or another white power group. They’re meant to represent the dual lightning bolt runes of the SS, the elite soldiers of Nazi Germany – as well as the enforcers of racial purity laws.

Playing Cards

A set of playing cards inked on a prisoner usually signifies that the wearer either enjoys gambling or feels that life itself is a gamble. In the intricate world of Russian prison tattoos, they have a slightly different meaning, with each suit signifying a different rank or status. Some of these are forcibly applied, such as a diamond, usually meaning the prisoner is a snitch and the other prisoners are meant to know that.


Usually inked across the back of the neck or on the knuckles, ACAB is an acronym for “All Cops Are Bastards.” They’re predominately found in British prisons, and usually signify that the wearer went to prisonto protect his crew.

Clock with No Hands

Many prisoners serving long sentences view time as meaningless. When you’ve got years or decades to go, what’s one hour or one day? Hence the number of prison lifers who have a tattoo of a clock with no hands. It signifies that the wearer has nothing but time.

Barbed Wire

While a barbed wire tattoo across the forearm is a popular affectation for many young people, they have a different meaning in prison culture, especially in Russia. Barbed wire across the forehead usually means the wearer has a life sentence without possibility of parole. Barbed wire in other places can signify the number of years one has served.


Three interlocking triangles representing the afterlife, the valknut is an important symbol in Norse mythology. As such, it’s a popular tattoo in prison, particularly with neo-Nazi and white power prison gangs.

Five Pointed Crown

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Based out of Chicago, the Latin Kings are one of the biggest street gangs in the US, and the five-pointed crown is their main symbol. Anyone tattooed with one, particularly a large one on their back or neck, is almost certainly affiliated with the gang. The crowns themselves can have intricate designs, including jewels, and sometimes include the acronym ALKN – “Almighty Latin Kings Nation.”


Have a run-in with a prisoner wearing a shamrock tattoo and you’re not going to get lucky. When applied in prison, a shamrock tattoo often represents the Aryan Brotherhood, and will often include other letters or symbols, including the letters AB, the number 12 (for the first two letters of the alphabet) or 666.


Any combination of the letters “MS” and the number 13 is likely to indicate that the wearer of the tattoo is a member of Mara Salvatrucha, a gang traditionally composed of El Salvadoran immigrants by way of Los Angeles. MS-13 is one of the largest gangs in the world, with over 70,000 members – many of them in prison. Their members identify each other through tattoos, especially on the face, and large renderings of the gang’s name or numbers on their backs.

The Letter M

Variations on tattoos featuring the letter M usually signify the wearer is in the Mexican Mafia. This is a huge prison gang, with members all over the country and weilding enormous power both on the street and in the jail system.
Mythological creatures like demons and dragons tattooed on a prison inmate usually signify the wearer’s evil nature breaking out, now that they’ve been removed from polite society. This is a fairly common symbol regardless of any gang affiliation.

Eyes on the Back of the Arm

An eye tattooed on the back of one’s arm signifies that the wearer of the tattoo is savvy enough not to be jumped from behind.

The Number 14

N is 14th letter of the alphabet, and tattoos of the number 14 can represent the Norteno gang, one of the biggest gangs in northern California, and the traditional rivals of southern California gangs. Of course, this 14 is not to be confused with 14s tattooed on Aryan Brotherhood members, representing the “14 words” mantra.


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Often found on the knuckles or chest of imprisoned bikers, AFFA stands for “Angel Forever, Forever Angel.” Anyone with this on their hand is probably a Hells Angels member.

Russian Tattoos

Prisoners in the Russian correctional system, particularly in the ’70s and ’80s, had some of the most intricate and complicated tattoos anywhere. Incarcerated by a Communist system that often put people away for minor infractions, men would have extensive tattoos depicting what they’d done, who or what they opposed, and of what caste they were a part.

For example, a tattoo of a church often represented a thief, a dagger on the neck meant that the prisoner had committed a murder in jail, medals on the chest were an ironic expression of dissent against the Soviet regime, and stars on the shoulders represented someone who was an “officer” in the prisoner hierarchy.


A variation on the three dots, the letters “VL” usually stand for “vida loca” – my crazy life. Wearers are often, though not always, members of a Spanish-speaking prison gang.

Clown Faces

Popular with gang members of all races, clown face tattoos, particularly dual smiling and frowning clowns, have a number of meanings. Most are some kind of a variation on “laugh now, cry later” or “my happy life, my sad life.”


Usually comprising four letters tattooed across the knuckles, EWMN stands for “evil, wicked, nasty, mean.” They’re meant to be the last thing you see before an inmate punches your lights out.


Viking tattoos are usually another example of white power symbolism, used to represent Nordic tradition and strength.

Face Tattoos

Getting a tattoo on your face in prison generally means you’re going to be there a while, and the more face tattoos you have, the longer you’re inside. A few notable examples of face tattoos have gone , including a guy with “Satan” tattooed on his face (as well as having a surgically forked tongue) as well as numerous prisoners with curse words tattooed on their foreheads.


Swallows (and birds in general) tattooed on prisoners can indicate that a prisoner has previously done time, especially in England, where “done your bid” can sound like “done your bird.”