prison_280According to a 2006 PEW Research Center report, almost 4 in 10 between the ages of 18 and 40 are tattooed. Tattoos may be becoming the norm but before their surge in popularity, tattoos were the province of society’s outcasts: sailors, artists, carnies and outlaws – acting as roadmaps of their lives: who they were, what they had done, their loves, desires, their sorrows and pains.

The social acceptability of tattoos may have changed but inmates are still outcasts without a shred of status in mainstream society. In prisons and jails around the world, prisoner tattoos are visual narratives. The stories they tell can be personal, they can be political and they can be warning signs. A person’s tattoos can speak to what they have done in the past, what groups he has belonged to, what “work” he/she has put in, as well as time served, what he/she does on the outside and whether or not they have killed. Tattoos can also mourn the loss of a loved one or the joy of a child’s birth. They can be a celebration of the wearer’s heritage and pride.

Robert Gumpert / NB Pictures

A short and incomplete glossary of tattoo markings and terms

– Car: gang unit
– Shot Caller: gang member in charge of a group
– Doing or putting in work: usually an assault or murder done on instructions from a “shot caller”
– Earned tattoo: can be any number of symbols showing membership, a gang’s name or symbol, or a symbol of work done
– Lightning bolts: awarded to members of white gangs usually for assigned assaults, usually on another race but not always.
– The number 13 (represented by a single dot on one hand and three on the other): used to represent Surenos, a gang that grew out of the Mexican Mafia. Their sworn enemies, the Nortenos or Nuestra Familia are represented by the number 14 which sometimes appears as a dot on one hand and four dots on the other.
– It has been reported that a star on the arm of a Norteno member is awarded for one killing.  A star on the forehead is given for two or more.
– A place name such as “Oakland” or SF usually refers to hometown but not always. At least in California white prison gangs are structured along county lines. A prisoner with “Coco” on his stomach means both he is from Contra Costa County and in one of the white prison gangs.
– “415”, the phone area code for San Francisco does not mean the wearer is from San Francisco. It is a symbol for a political black (although not exclusively black) prison gang known as Kumi Nation, Swahili for 10 or 4+1+5. Other tattoos associated with the Kumi Nation are statements of pride and the continent of Africa with a figure holding an AK-47 coming out of it.
– “MOB”: “Money over Bitches”
– “MOE”: “Men of Business”
– Greek masks: Used in many different forms to symbolise the good times and the bad or pain and sorrow, and joy and pleasure. Found on all races.
– 51-50: Penal code for being a danger to self and others.

Slogans reflecting beliefs or attitudes are a common theme and are often placed around the color bone

– “Only God can Judge Me”: “That just basically means that no matter what, no matter how society looks at you, at you as an individual, like how the justice system looks at you as a monster or menace to society, regardless of what they say, only God can judge you. A judge can’t judge you just because he’s a judge. He’s not God Almighty. No matter what kind of person society makes you out to be, only God can judge you. Only God knows you.”  – Michael Sipp, prisoner
– “Trample The Weak Hurdle The Dead”: Nazi Skinhead
– “SWP”: Supreme White Power
– “1488”:  Used by white supremacist gangs. 14 refers to “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” a phrase by David Lane. 88 refers to the eighth letter of the alphabet, H. Double is HH or Heil Hitler.
– USO: Polynesian or Pacific Islander.

The audio included in the slideshow comprises interviews with Salahodim Gaines, a tattoo artist both in prison and on the outside, and Charles Sipp, talking about his set of tattoos, what they mean and why he got them.

See also:

Andrew Lichtenstein –
Texas Prison tattoos