Nothing symbolizes gang members' commitment to their gangs more forcefully thanthe gang tattoo. These symbols proclaim the individual's allegiance to the group in away that is both permanent and deeply personal-being written on the body itself. Butin recent years, thanks to a combination of social and technological changes, thesignificance and the permanence of gang tattoos are both being challenged. As aresult, it appears that the power of these signifiers has begun to erode.Tattoos are thought to have existed since the beginning of mankind. The oldest tattoo ever found was on a man frozen in a glacier near Austria who was believed to have died in approximately 4000 B.C. Although it's not known whether the frozenAustrian was a criminal, for most of recorded history tattoos have been associatedwith unlawful behavior and the underworld.The early Romans tattooed slaves and criminals as a means of identification.During the years 300-600 C.E. in Japan, criminals were sometimes tattooed aspunishment for their crimes. Criminals in the Mediterranean region in the thirdcentury C.E. were often tattooed or branded with symbols indicating the crimes theycommitted; sometimes the victim's name was even emblazoned on the criminal'sforehead.But while society has often imposed tattoos in order to identify the tattooed ascriminals, many people have also embraced these stigmatizing marks. Being anoutlaw can be a source of pride as well as shame. Gang members in particular takepride in branding themselves as outside of the boundaries of conventional society.Until recently, tattooing was restricted to stigmatized members of society, includinggang members, carnival workers and prisoners-categories that often overlapped. Itis significant, however, that tattoos were not imposed on these groups, but chosenby them as a means of self-identification and, often, a symbol of belonging.Tattoos have long been a means of identifying oneself with a group or culture. Gangswere one of the first groups to use tattoos as a means of denoting identity andaffinity, but groups as diverse as the military, sports teams, and even the popularcountry group The Dixie Chicks have used matching tattoos as a visible sign of themembers' bond with one another.For gang members, however, tattoos are a way of both asserting membership in thegang and flaunting their lack of membership in straight society. For this reason,street gang members will often get tattoos on their hands and faces so as topermanently bar them from being a part of normal society. The larger and moreprominent the tattoo, the harder it is to hide, the more impressive it is to other gangmembers. For this reason, two of the most widespread gang tattoos are often foundon the most visible parts of the body: the hands and the face. For example, 18thStreet gang member Sergio Ochoa tattooed the numbers "187" (the California PenalCode section which refers to murder) above his eye after being convicted of a 1990killing of a rival gang member. A common tattoo among Hispanic gang membersfrom many different gangs is the pachuco cross tattooed on the hand between the
thumb and index finger. Alternatively, the same area is often embellished with threedots in a pyramid shape, a symbol that stands for "mi vida loca," "my crazy life."Southeast Asian gangsters have adopted the same tattoo of the three dots, definingits meaning as "To O Can Gica," or "I care for nothing." In Cuban prisons the sametattoo declares that the wearer's criminal aptitude is in larceny.
Figure 1 The pachuco cross is the simplest gang tattoo, and one of the most pervasive. It consists of asmall cross with three lines or dots above it.
Figure 2 Three dots representing, "mi vida loca," or "my crazy life," and is commonly tattooed on thehands or face.
The social impact of such visible tattoos made many professional tattooists uneasyabout providing them. In his book, Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo With Gangs, Sailors, and Street-Corner Punks 1950-1965, tattoo artistSamuel M. Steward says, "Ethical tattoo artists did nor work on hands or faces,unless someone wanted a pachuco cross covered or had some other tattoo that hadto be concealed…. I wouldn't tattoo the hand but many unscrupulous jaggers up thestreet would. From the moment a person got a hand tattooed, his life wasenormously complicated. Such tattoos could not be removed from ordinary surgicalmethods as others can… "The most common tattoo among gangsters of all nationalities is one that denotes thegang that they are in. This is seen as the mark of lifelong membership. The gangethos of "blood in, blood out"-the idea that the prospective member must killsomeone as the price of admission to the gang and cannot leave except by dyinghimself-is embodied in the tattoo as a sign of permanent belonging to the gang.Indeed, in some gangs the gang tattoo must be earned by completing a seriousmission or hit for the gang.Often gang tattoos will simply say the name of the gang that the wearer is in, usuallyin Old English lettering or script. Often the gang name will be slightly disguised bygiving it an assigned number. For example, the Nortenos will often use 14, X4, XIV(all denoting the 14th letter of the alphabet, N) in their tattoos. Surenos affiliatedwith the Mexican Mafia (La eMe) use the number 13, X3, and XIII (for M, the 13thletter of the alphabet). The Vice Lords of Chicago are often recognizable by theirtattoos of the number 312, which is the Chicago area code. The 18th Street gang of
Los Angeles, not surprisingly, uses the number 18. (Incidentally, they will sometimesbeat their prospective members for 18 seconds as a way to "jump them in.")Gangs also find other ways to identify themselves without using their full gangnames. The Nortenos use the Spanish word for "fourteen," "catorce." The Surenos(Sureno means "southerner," for Southern California) sometimes use the Azteclanguage, Nahuatl, in their tattoos. "Kan," for example, means "South," and "Kanpol"means "Southerner." They will also use Aztec numerology to denote the number 13.
Figure 3 The Aztec number meaning "13" is sometimes used in tattoos by Surenos.
In addition to advertising gang membership, tattoos can tell other details about thebearer, including rank in the gang and number of "hits" or other services performedon the gang's behalf. Which side of the body the tattoo is on also carries significance.Tattoos can also tell more personal details about gang members' lives, such asmemorials to deceased loved ones, the names and birthdates of their children, whatcountry or region they are from, and how many of their loved ones have died whilethey were incarcerated. A common tattoo among gang members is a small teardropbelow the eye. Although some take this symbol to mean that the bearer has killedsomeone, others use it to show that someone close to the bearer has died, especiallyif this occurred while the tattooed individual was incarcerated.Tattoos are also used to express gang members' often fatalist philosophy of life. Onepopular tattoo among Hispanic gangsters is a depiction of the smiling and cryingcomedy and tragedy masks, meaning, "play now and pay later," or "my happy life,my sad life." Clock faces are also found within the intricate artwork that can make upa gangster's tattoos. If the clock has no hands, it symbolizes doing time in prison.The hands can be on specific numbers to signify the gang alliance; for example, aNorteno might be emblazoned with a clock face with one hand on the one, and theother on the four to signify "14." Tombstones are also common. Many gang memberswill get one tombstone tattooed for each year that they are incarcerated. Thetombstones are inscribed with the year of freedom that was lost. Tombstones with"R.I.P." and a date show the loss of a loved one. Often these tattoos are reserved forfellow gang members who were killed in gang related violence. A tattoo of a cellwindow through which one can see the sun or birds flying signify that the bearer iswaiting to get out of prison. A similar Russian prison gang tattoo depicts birds flyingin the sun rising over the ocean's horizon, meaning, "I was born free and shouldagain be free."For gangs, the use of tattoos as a means of group identification can be a life or deathmatter. Nowhere is that more true than in the case of gangs within penalinstitutions, a world in which tattoos can be particularly important.Upon being sent to prison, many people who were not previously members of gangsquickly find that their survival "on the inside" depends on their membership in aprison gang. "Certain tattoos inspire fear and respect and give the wearer an
abrasive edge," says Douglas Kent Hall in his book, Prison Tattoos. "In prison, thatedge becomes reason enough for acquiring them. Inmates take risks for security. Afew well-chosen motorcycle gang tattoos might make life in tough cellblocks a lotsafer and easier. On the other hand, a convict caught wearing gang tattoosfraudulently may suffer serious disgraces and even get himself killed." Because of the high percentage of prisoners who are in gangs, much of the tattoo work doneinside prisons should be considered gang tattoos.Street gangs often have factions inside of prisons, and in fact many street gangs,such as the Surenos, Nortenos, and Aryan Brotherhood, have their roots in prisongangs. But while street gangs allow for diversity, prison gangs tend to be race-based. Street gangs generally revolve around a specific neighborhood or turf, sotheir racial makeup reflects that of their neighborhood. Of course the neighborhoodsin which they are based are often segregated, leading to same-race gangs, but thefocus of the gang is not primarily racial. Gangs inside prisons, by contrast, aresharply divided along racial lines and are often race-based in nature, such as theMexican Mafia, Aryan Warriors, and Black Guerrilla Family.As a result, whereas street gangs' tattoos are commonly neighborhood- or turf-affiliated, gang tattoos made in prison are often as race-based as the gangs theyrepresent.For example, many of the black prison gangs, such as the Black Guerrilla Family andits spin-off, 415, also known as the Kumi African Nation, use symbols of Africa-including pictures of the continent itself-in their tattoos. For example, a populartattoo among members of the Kumi African Nation depicts a yero, or African Warrior,rising up out of an outline of the continent of Africa. In his left hand he holds amachine gun, and in his right he holds a flag bearing the numbers 415. Theseimages reflect the African orientation of both the Black Guerrilla Family and the KumiAfrican Nation, which both encourage their members to learn Mau Mau history andwords drawn from the Swahili language, which they use to communicate with eachother in ways that will not be accessible to outsiders.Two of the strongest Hispanic prison gangs-The Mexican Mafia (La eMe), and MRU-Mi Raza Unida (My United People)-use a symbol drawn from the Mexican flag, thesnake and eagle as their emblem, and will usually incorporate this into their tattoos.The founder of MRU, Ernest Mercado, was allegedly killed outside of prison by amember of the Mexican Mafia for adopting the same snake and eagle symbol thatthe Mexican Mafia used and believed they had exclusive rights to. Many Hispanicgangsters are also tattooed with Aztec imagery, such as the popular image of anAztec warrior carrying an unconscious maiden. This reflects their vision of theirheritage; by the same token, some members of the Mexican Mafia have actuallylearned the Aztec language, Nahuatl, as a means to communicate privately with oneanother.Within prisons, white gangs have a prominence that they do not enjoy on theoutside. Because of their minority status within the penal system, many whites whowould not otherwise consider gang membership or devote themselves to the "whiterace" feel compelled to join a gang for their own safety. Under those circumstances,visible identification as a member of the protecting gang in the form of a tattoobecomes an important way to guarantee personal safety.
The first white prison gangs emerged during the 1950s in the California prisonsystem, a development that eventually led to the formation of the AryanBrotherhood-one of the most famous and brutal prison gangs.
Figure 4 A common tattoo of the Aryan Brotherhood incorporates a shamrock, "666" (the "mark of the beast") and the letters "AB."
Many white gangs use Irish, Viking and German symbolism in their tattoos,regardless of the gang members' actual pedigree. The Aryan Brotherhood's commontattoos feature shamrocks, Nazi emblems such as swastikas and "SS" lightning bolts,Viking heads, and the slogan "Sinn Fein," which in Gaelic means, "we stand alone."The importance of gang tattoos in prisons can be gauged by the trouble prisoners arewilling to go to in order to get these signifiers permanently etched onto their skin, forgetting a tattoo in prison can be a long and arduous process. Because of the healthrisks associated with unsanitary tattooing (such as the spread of disease via sharedneedles and far-from-sanitary inks), most prisons have banned the practice and arevigilant in preventing inmates from getting new tattoos while incarcerated.Nevertheless, prison tattooists and their customers manage to find a way to floutthese regulations.Tattoos in prison are done one of two ways. First is the freehand method. Using Indiaink or ink derived from "soot created by burning plastic eating utensils mixed withPrell shampoo and water," the tattoo is applied using a needle or piece of sharp wirein small dots. These tattoos are noticeably crude and can often appear childish. Moreambitious prison practitioners are able to attain very professional-looking resultsusing tattoo machines made out of, for example, a Walkman motor, a hollowed outpen, a guitar string or wire from a lighter, and a battery. These bits of everyday junkcan be put together to create tattoos that are the equal of many high-qualitycommercial efforts.During the tattooing process, however, both the tattooist and the recipient are underconstant threat of being caught in the act by prison guards. If their activity isdiscovered while the tattoo is being created, or even if they are merely caught withtattooing tools, they face the likely prospect of being put in lockdown and losing alltheir privileges, and the tattooing paraphernalia will almost certainly be confiscated.The tremendous risk involved means that getting a detailed tattoo is a badge of pridefor inmates. So great is the prestige of prison tattoos that gang members outside of prison will often use the same methods that inmates use rather than go toprofessional tattoo parlors. These homemade tattoos can be just as detailed andintricate as professional ones, even though the tools are often improvised. If tattoosshow the street gang member's pride in his or her "outlaw" status, in prison a gangmember's tattoos offer proof that he or she has flouted the rules and gotten awaywith it.
Today the role of tattoos is now facing a different kind of challenge: the adoption of tattoos as a standard accessory by large portions of mainstream society. True, fewmiddle-class rebels have gone so far as to get facial tattoos, or tattoos on theirhands-practices long common amongst gang members. But although gang memberstry to use tattoos to separate themselves from mainstream society, the effect thatgang tattoos have had on the hipper strata of the middle class is undeniable.Teenagers who may have no idea of these symbols' original meaning are nowwearing tattoos that were originally worn by gang members as badges of honor.A case in point is the spider web tattooed on one's elbow. Among gang members,this tattoo was a code, readable by other gangsters in prison and on the outside,showing that the bearer had served serious time in the penitentiary. In some parts of the country the same tattoo meant that the wearer had killed a member of aminority group. In fact, James Burmeister was convicted in 1995 of killing a blackcouple, an act he committed solely because he wanted to wear the spider web tattoothat was popular among members of the Aryan Brotherhood. But while this tattooholds powerful and specific significance for gang members, to the middle class thathas co-opted the symbol it has no meaning beyond the idea that it is simply "cool."Thus Robert Van Winkle (formerly famous as the rapper Vanilla Ice) and LarsFrederiksen of the band Rancid both sport spiderweb tattoos. In a 1996 episode of Melrose Place, one of the characters gets drunk before going to tattoo parlor andwakes up the next day with a huge spider web tattooed on his elbow.The spider web may be the most common prison tattoo to be assimilated by themiddle class, but it is not the only one. People who have no affiliations to or interestin gangs have had themselves tattooed with Old English script on their chests, backsand arms, a style that used to be exclusive to gang members. These non-gang-member tattoo wearers believe they can imbibe the "gangsta" aura without having tolead a gangster life. Thus Dody Lira, a highly tattooed but law-abiding 25-year-oldfrom Dallas, Texas, is proud to have several tattoos that are in the same style asgang tattoos, including a large tattoo of his own last name on the outside of his leftcalf in Old English lettering. "They have influenced me, by planting a symbolic badgethat can be worn for everyone to see, for the rest of my life," he explained. "It allties in with symbolism-they all stand for something; it's universally known." But heacknowledges that there are some gang tattoos he would not adopt, saying, "Yousee a dude with 187 on his forearm, he's probably a killer." Still, he sees no conflictbetween staying within the bounds of polite society while sporting gang-style tattoos."Yuppies also drive Harleys," he explains. "That doesn't mean that they are beerdrinking, wife smacking bikers."Research has yet to be done on the effects of this middle-class enthusiasm for gang-style tattoo art, but it seems likely that tattoos may be losing their cachet assymbols of outlawry. It is even more probable that at least some gang membershave started shying away from getting obvious gang-related tattoos in recent yearsbecause of the increased attention that law enforcement agencies are paying totattoos as signs of gang membership.Public demand for police crackdowns against gangs has given law enforcement newpowers against suspected gang members and therefore drawn greater attention tosignifiers of gang membership, particularly tattoos. With the advent of specialsentencing provisions that provide harsher punishment for crimes that are gang-
related, law enforcement has a vested interest in being able to recognize and provegang membership.Thus police in some states, including California and Florida, have started keepingdetailed databases detailing particular gang tattoos as a means of identifying gangmembers. When suspected gang members are arrested or incarcerated, police willoften take photographic evidence of specific tattoos and include that in the prisoners'permanent record, tagging them as gangbangers for the duration of their prison timeand beyond.In California, one of the nation's most comprehensive and severe juvenile justicelaws was passed in March 2000 in the hopes of curbing juvenile crime. Proposition 21allows youths as young as 14 to be prosecuted as adults and serve felony prisonsentences for crimes deemed to be gang-related, even if they are otherwiserelatively minor crimes, such as graffiti. The proposition also allows juvenile recordsthat were previously confidential to be opened in the case of gang members, andallows gang-related nonviolent crimes to be eligible as "strikes" under California's"three strikes" law. As wish sex-offender laws, it requires gang members to registeras such in city and statewide databases. Most severely, it makes juveniles eligible toreceive the death sentence for certain gang-related offenses.Although the California law is the most punitive of this new breed of anti-gang juvenile justice laws, the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability andRehabilitation Act of 1999 passed by the U.S. Senate encourages other states topass similar laws. While these laws do not specify how a suspect's gang membershipis to be proved, local law enforcement personnel have come up with a variety of methods for accomplishing this-and gang-related tattoos are regarded by police as akey indicator.Some agencies use a point system, giving various weights to different criteria fordetermining gang membership. Whether a suspect uses gang hand signs, how he orshe dresses, whether he or she appears in group photos with known gang members,whether he or she engages in writing gang-related graffiti-these are typical of thecriteria used to evaluate whether someone is in a gang. Other than an open verbaldeclaration of gang membership, the indicator that is given the highest point value-that is regarded as the most damning evidence of being a member-is a gang tattoo.Thus the very things that make tattoos appealing as signifiers of gang membership-their visibility and permanence-are also the factors that make them appealing to lawenforcement as a way of identifying and punishing gang members.This in turn has begun to challenge the permanence of tattoos. The increasedinterest in tattooing among the middle class has also spurred development of newtechniques for removing tattoos. What was once permanent is now less so, althoughremoving a tattoo is still a major undertaking. This has affected gang members aswell as movie stars. There are now many popular community initiatives to providefree or low-cost tattoo removal to former gang members. Proponents of these planssay that youth in rehabilitation programs who have their gang tattoos removed aremore likely to stay out of the gangs and off drugs. It also allows adults who hadpreviously been barred the work force because of highly visible tattoos to supportthemselves and their families after removal of the stigmatizing gang insignia. Most of these plans ask that the recipients of the services pay for them by performing
community service of some sort, rather than paying for the procedure, which cancost as much as $7,000 otherwise.Dr. Tolbert Wilkinson, a Texas-based doctor, works with one of these programscontends that they are highly effective. He sites a survey conducted by the BanderaPolice Department, which found that 95 percent of former gang members who hadsubmitted to having their gang tattoos removed "are now drug-free and employed. "A 14-year-old who has his gang's name tattooed across his forehead is committinghimself to a lifetime of identification not only with a specific gang, but with theoutlaw life. "Sometimes it makes [other people] afraid if they see these things [gangtattoos], and they don't know what to make of them," says Jim Foley, a physicianwho works with another de-tattooing program, the Minnesota-based "Getting Out.""And the kids have changed. They want to get rid of the mark, the tattoo, that's thestigma of the past."Like many commitments, the commitment to a gang can fade. Now thanks to plasticsurgery techniques, so can a gang tattoo.