Prison tattooing is the practice of creating and displaying tattoos in a prison environment. Present-day American and Russian prisoners may convey gang membership, code, or hidden meanings for origin or criminal deeds. Lack of proper equipment and sterile environments lead to health risks such as infection or disease (hepatitis, AIDS) from contaminated needles.


Since tattooing in prison is illegal in the United States, the inmates do not have the proper equipment necessary for the practice. This forces inmates to find ways to create their own tattooing devices out of their belongings. Improvised tattooing equipment has been assembled from materials such as mechanical pencils, magnets, radio transistors, staples, paper clips or guitar strings.[1][better source needed] The ink used also needs to be improvised, either taken from pens or made using melted plastic, soot mixed with shampoo, or melted Styrofoam. Prison tattoos are not generally applied free of charge, and the tattooists are normally paid with anything from stamps and cigarettes to actual cash.


There are many different symbols and numbers that represent multiple gangs or groups. Certain images like spider webs can represent the length of sentences. The well-known teardrop tattoo signifies that the wearer was raped while incarcerated and tattooed with a teardrop under the eye by the offending party,[2] this was a way of “marking” an inmate as property or to publicly humiliate the inmate as face tattoos cannot be hidden;[3] and the wearer may tell people he has killed someone.

Tattoos are also used to communicate who the inmates are as people - for example, white supremacists will display prominent tattoos to show their beliefs. Some common symbols used in this manner are the percentile 100%, a white supremacist indicator of racial purity; Valknuts; swastikas.[4] Runic insignia of the Schutzstaffel ("lightning bolts") are sometimes awarded to members of white gangs for assigned assaults on other races.[5]

Three dots arranged as a triangle, mean "mi vida loca" or "my crazy life" to Mexican inmates linked to the Mexican Mafia, while four dots have the same meaning but are found on Mexican gang members associated with the Nuestra Familia;[6] a clock with no hands represents "doing time"; spider webs are a symbol of being trapped; or the number 13 to signify being unlucky.

One common prison tattoo is the five dots tattoo, a quincunx usually placed on the hand, with different meanings in different cultures.

Mostly seen in the UK but used elsewhere too, a common prison tattoo is four dots tattooed across the knuckles of the criminal which stands for ACAB (All Coppers Are Bastards). Or a dot on each hand in between the thumb and forefinger, one meaning going into prison and one meaning they have completed their sentence.

In Ireland, a common tattoo ex-inmates give themselves is a simple dot placed under the eye using Indian ink, colloquially known as a "jail dot".

A Borstal dot also meant doing time but this tattoo has become a lot less common since Borstals were abolished. Another less common prison tattoo dates back to Borstals which earned itself the name the "Borstal glove" is the back of the criminal's hand outlined and just full of Indian ink.

A spider web usually located on the elbow, symbolizes time served in prison.[7]


Since the tattoo machines are homemade and efficient means of sterilization are not available, there are many health risks involved. Deadly diseases like hepatitis and HIV/AIDS can be passed from one person to the next through shared needles. Also, the makeshift ink can damage the skin, cause permanent scarring, or contain harmful chemicals.[8] Tattoo equipment is also considered contraband, and tattooing can be considered by prison officials to be a punishable form of self-mutilation. The Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2011 reclassified tattooing as a high severity prohibited act.[9]

See also


  1. ^ "Prison Tattoos". Convictedartist.com. Retrieved 2012-08-04. 
  2. ^ "Four Days in the Oaxaca State Prison : Mexico Living". mexconnect.com. Retrieved 3 November 2016. the victim of rape is tattooed with a teardrop below the eye by the offending party 
  3. ^ "Teardrop Tattoo Meaning: Tattoos With Meaning". tattooswithmeaning.com. a way of “marking” an inmate as property of another person or for humiliation; a face tattoo cannot be covered up or hidden. 
  4. ^ "A Visual Database of Extremist Symbols, Logos and Tattoos". Adl.org. Retrieved 2012-08-04. 
  5. ^ http://www.foto8.com/live/prison-tattoos-2/
  6. ^ "15 prison tattoos and their meanings". CorrectionsOne. Retrieved 2017-02-14. 
  7. ^ Atkinson, Michael (2003). Tattooed : the sociogenesis of a body art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 40. ISBN 0802085687. 
  8. ^ Beth S, M.D. "Prison Tattoos". Tattoos.lovetoknow.com. Retrieved 2012-08-04. 
  9. ^ https://www.bop.gov/policy/progstat/5270_009.pdf