A Criminal Tattoo History
Criminal Tattoo History, Meanings and Gang Tattoos.
Going back throughout modern history, Tattoos have long been associated with Criminality. Whilst it is true that there are links to certain Tattoos, gangs criminal tattoo rituals and similar, it has to be said that in my opinion, most of this line of thinking is mere stereotyping of tattooed people.
Going further back in english history, tattoing was originally synonomous with the higher classes of society. Over the centuries tattoos have been the indelible marks of royalty, of loyalty to a gang, of religious devotion and pledges of love.
Among criminals, Tattoos can be used to show membership of gangs and record the wearer's personal history - such as his or her skills, specialities, accomplishments and convictions. They are also used as a means of personal expression. Certain designs have developed recognised coded meanings. The code systems can be quite complex and, because of the nature of what they encode, they are often not widely recognised.
British Criminal Tattoos
ACAB is an acronym often integrated into prison tattoos in the United Kingdom. It is most commonly rendered with one letter between the knuckle and first joint of each finger, sometimes as symbolic small dots with or without the accompanying letters. Also commonly presumed to be associated with the UK prison system (often incorrectly) are words on the knuckles, homemade tattoos (cotton, needle and indian ink) and similar. Many prison / jail related tattoo designs are now adopted by the youth culture as a means of identifying themselves as tough, mean, or to imply their willingness to go to jail for their crew or gang.
ACAB can stand for All Coppers Are Bastards, or Always Carry A Bible, but most likely All Coppers Are Bastards depending on who is asking and whether the bearer is trying to make a good impression.
Japane Criminal History
Extensive body tattoos ('body suits') are commonly worn by Yakuza members. These traditional tattoos are known as irezumi in Japanese. Their size and elaborate nature show not only the wearers' affiliation, but also his ability to endure pain.
Starting in the Kofun period (300-600 A.D.), tattoos began to assume negative connotations. Instead of being used for ritual or status purposes, tattooed marks began to be placed on criminals as a punishment (this was mirrored in ancient Rome, where slaves were known to have been tattooed with mottos such as "I am a slave who has run away from his master").
At the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912 A.D.) the Japanese government, wanting to protect its image and make a good impression on the west, outlawed tattoos, and irezumi took on connotations of criminality. Nevertheless, fascinated foreigners went to Japan seeking the skills of tattoo artists, and traditional tattooing continued underground.
Tattooing was legalized by the occupation forces in 1945, but has retained its image of criminality. For many years, traditional Japanese tattoos were associated with the Yakuza and many businesses in Japan (such as public baths, fitness centers and hot springs) still ban customers with tattoos.
A tattoo of a raised arm holding a machine gun along with Arabic writing underneath is associated with Hezbollah, although Islam, the predominant religion of Hezbollah (Party of God), outlaws tattoos. This arises a lot of controversy about their true alleigences or representation of Islam as a religion.
A tattoo of three dots in a triangle, usually found on the skin between the thumb and forefinger, stands for "mi vida loca" ("my crazy life"). Along with the pachuco cross, it is a popular "generic" tattoo among Hispanic teenagers, and has no direct connection to gangs. The tattoo has also been adopted by Vietnamese teenagers, along with the similar interpretation of "toi khong can gi ca" ("I need nothing"). See Three Dots Tattoo.
A teardrop tattoo is said to indicate that the wearer has killed or a friend of his was killed in prison. It is worn by the eye.A tattoo of a shamrock is associated with the white supremacist prison gang founded in California known as the Aryan Brotherhood. The Aryan Brotherhood is also known to use 12 as an identifier, with the 1 symbolizing the letter A, and the 2 symbolizing the letter B. Another white supremacy gang, the Aryan Circle, uses 13 as their symbol, with the same meaning.
A tattoo of an Ace of Spades was mainly adopted by the Aco Town and Asian Boyz gang, but have been widely used by Asian youths in California. Often, an "A" is placed in the middle of the spade: the "A" symbolizing Asian and the spade symbolizing thievery.
A tattoo of the number "13" indicates membership in the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) gang. The Mexican Mafia uses MM or a Hand normaly a black hand, and are sometimes affiliated with California-based street gangs known as the Surenos. A tattoo of the number "14" is associated with the prison gang, Nuestra Familia and associated California-based street gangs known as Nortenos. A tattoo of "13 1/2" means 12 jurors plus 1 judge plus 1/2 a chance. It is a common practice for California street gangs of all races and ethnic backgrounds to have the telephone area code in their neighborhood tattooed, e.g. 213, 818, 310, 714, 415, 619; with the frequent changes in California area codes, this can quickly become outdated.
Russian criminal tattoos have a complex system of symbols which can 'read' to 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.
Tattoos done in a Russian prison have a distinct blueish color and usually appear somewhat blurred because of the lack of instruments to draw fine lines.
In addition to voluntary tattooing, tattoos are used to stigmatise and punish individuals within the criminal society. 'Grins' may be placed on an individual who fails to pay debts in card games and often have very blatant sexual images, embarrassing the wearer.
The Four Suits:
- Spades - the "suit of thieves" (particularly where the symbol appears upside down)
- Clubs - another "criminal" suit
- Diamonds - the "chummy suit" (i.e. stoolpigeons and informers); this suit is usually forcibly applied
- Hearts - a sexual symbol; it may mark the wearer out as a "passive homosexual" within the prison
- Cross (A cross worn on the chest signifies a "Prince of Thieves," the highest possible rank.)
- 'Grins' (these are humorous tattoos usually incorporating a grinning face and are often accompanied by text)
- Snakes (snakes have a particular symbolism and are usually worn by high ranking gang members)
- Tigers (signifies an 'enforcer')
- Cats (the cat is associated with the characteristics needed by a criminal)
- Skulls (these are usually worn by high ranking gang members)
- Eyes (these are forcibly placed on lower backside to show that the prisoner is used for sexual gratification)
- Barbed wire (A barbed wire across ones forehead usually indicates a life-term in prison.)
- Swastika (Is forcibly applied to forehead and marks one for death.)
- Stars (Stars commonly represent time served. Each point indicates a year served in jail.)
- Churches (Like stars, but for Christian prisoners, the number of dome towers indicate the amount of years that the prisoner has been sentenced to.)