Tattoos are commonly used among criminals to show gang membership and record the wearer’s personal history—such as his or her skills, specialties, accomplishments, and convictions. They are also used as a means of personal expression. Certain designs have developed recognized coded meanings. The code systems can be quite complex and because of the nature of what they encode, the tattoos are not widely recognized.
Tattooing is forbidden in most prisons. It is therefore done in secret, with makeshift equipment. For example, tattoos done in a Russian prison often have a distinct bluish color (due to being made with ink from a ballpoint pen) and usually appear somewhat blurred because of the lack of instruments to draw fine lines. The ink is often created from burning the heel of a shoe and mixing the soot with urine (for sterilization), and injected into the skin utilizing a sharpened guitar string attached to an electric shaver.
Prisoners who were transported from Britain to Australian penal colonies between 1787 and 1867 were sometimes tattooed with marks intended to signify disgrace, for example ‘D’ for deserter. Prisoners often modified these tattoos to conceal the original design or to express wry or rebellious messages. Common tattoos are names of relatives or gang members, symbols of aggression, tattoos advertising a particular skill, or religious imagery. One of the most well-known tattoos is the teardrop tattoo, which may indicate that the wearer has killed someone.
Another common tattoo in American prisons and jails, especially for Hispanic inmates, is three dots on the top of the hand between the index finger and thumb, similar to French criminal tattoos. The trio is meant to symbolize alternately the Trinity (Catholic & Christian imagery is common in the US penal system), ‘Mi Vida Loca’ (‘My Crazy Life’), or ‘Mort aux Flics’ (‘Death to Cops’). The French dot tattoo is five dots resembles the pips on a die, placed on the hand between index finger and thumb. This tattoo represents the individual between the four walls of the prison cell (‘un homme entre quatre murs,’ ‘a man between four walls’). A single dot on the cheek usually means the wearer is a pimp (point des maquereaux).
Russian criminal tattoos have a complex system of symbols which can give quite detailed information about the wearer. Not only do the symbols carry meaning but the area of the body on which they are placed may be meaningful too. The initiation tattoo of a new gang member is usually placed on the chest and may incorporate a rose. A rose on the chest is also used within the Russian Mafia. Wearing false or unearned tattoos is harshly punished in the criminal underworld. Tattoos can be voluntarily removed (for loss of rank, new affiliation, ‘life style’ change, etc.) by bandaging magnesium powder onto the surface of the skin, which dissolves the skin bearing the marks with painful caustic burns. This powder is gained by filing ‘light alloy’ e.g. lawnmower casing, and is a jailhouse commodity.
In addition to voluntary tattooing, tattoos are used to stigmatize and punish individuals within the criminal society. They may be placed on an individual who fails to pay debts in card games, or otherwise breaks the criminal code, and often have very blatant sexual images, embarrassing the wearer. Tattoos on the forehead are usually forcibly applied, and designed both to humiliate the bearer and warn others about him or her. They frequently consist of slurs about the bearer’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, or perceived collusion with the prison authorities. They can indicate that the bearer is a member of a political group considered offensive by other prisoners (e.g. Vlasovite, collaborators), or has been convicted of a crime (such as child rape) which is disapproved of by other criminals.
Tattoos that consist of political or anti-authoritarian statements are known as ‘grins.’ They are often tattooed on the stomach of a ‘thief in law’ (a criminal who obeys The Thieves’ Code), as a means of acquiring status in the criminal community. A Russian criminologist, Yuri Dubyagin, has claimed that, during the Soviet era, there existed ‘secret orders’ that an anti-government tattoo must be ‘destroyed surgically,’ and that this procedure was usually fatal.
Common tattoos include barbed wire across the forehead (life imprisonment without possibility of parole), birds over horizon (‘I was born free and should be free’), cats (career thief; a single cat means the bearer worked alone, several cats mean the bearer was part of a gang), Madonna and baby Jesus (a thief since childhood), Celtic cross (White Power, and/or crosshairs of a gun, meaning that wearer is a hit man and he too will meet a violent end one day); dagger (sex offender), executioner (murderer, or that they follow the The Thieves’ Code), skulls (murderer), rose (death is preferable to loss of virtue), spider or spider web (may symbolize racism, doing time in prison, or drug addiction), tombstones (loss of time).
Churches, fortresses, etc. are often tattooed on the chest, back, or hand (the number of spires or towers can represent the years a prisoner has been incarcerated, or number of times he has been imprisoned). Often inscribed beneath a cathedral is the Greek Orthodox expression: ‘The Church is the House of God,’ which is meant to imply: ‘Prison is the Home of the Thief.’ Stars worn on the knees signify that the owner will kneel before no man and on the shoulders that he is a man of discipline, status, and tradition.