Prison tattoos are done with home-made needles and tattoo guns. The “needle” might be part of a paper clip, a staple or a bit of metal guitar string. An empty ballpoint pen holds the needle. The device may be rigged up to a small motor which makes it move up and down like a professional tattoo gun.

Ink for this type of tattoo might come from a pen, or it might be made from melted plastic, burned Styrofoam or whatever else the prisoners can find.

Remember that this method of tattooing is typically reserved for those who have no other methods at hand.

The Teardrop

One of the most widely recognized prison tattoos is the teardrop. But the meaning of the teardrop varies geographically. In some places a teardrop represents a long prison sentence, in other places the teardrop represents that the bearer committed a murder.

Sometimes the teardrop is empty. This can symbolize an attempted murder, or that one of the inmate’s friends was murdered and that they are seeking revenge. Rappers and other celebrities have popularized teardrop tattoos, which has led to many non-convicts getting the prison tattoos just for the ‘hard’ look it creates. If you are considering getting a teardrop tattoo, be warned: If you go to prison for the first time while sporting an unauthentic prison tattoo, you will make a lot of enemies, real fast.

The Gold Crown

The gold crown may seem like a fun, decorative tattoo. But if it’s got five points on it, it is a prison tattoo. The five-point crown is a symbol of the Latin Kings gang.

The Latin Kings are one of the biggest hispanic gangs in the US, they are based out of Chicago. The crown tattoo will often be accompanied by the letters ALKN, which means Almighty Latin Kings Nation. The crown has five points because the Latin Kings are an affiliate of the People Nation gang, which is represented by the number 5. Latin Kings have a huge presence both in and out of prison, and they’re roots go back to the 1940’s. Other details of the crown, such as the colors of the jewels in the points, can have a whole other level of hidden meanings.

The Cobweb

Cobweb tattoos have become very popular these days with people who were never convicts, but the cobweb is most definitely a prison tattoo. People get cobwebs to symbolize a lengthy term in prison.

The symbolism of the cobweb is the association with spiders trapping prey and criminals being trapped behind bars. The spider web represents the prison . This tattoo is commonly found on the elbow because it also represents a lot of time with your elbows on the table. I.E. you’ve been sitting in prison doing nothing for so long that a spider is weaving a cobweb on your elbow. Convicts also often get the cobweb tattooed on their necks as well. If you see a multi-colored web, it’s probably not a prison tat; prison tattoo artists rarely have access to colored ink.

The Numbers 1488

The numbers 1488 can be found on the tattoos of white supremacist/nazi inmates. 14 or 88 on their own can also be used. This can create confusion, as the Nuestra Familia gang also uses the number 14 in their tattoos.

In the case of white supremacists, the 14 represents 14 words. The 14 words are a quote by nazi leader David Lane: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children” The 88 is shorthand for the 8th letter of the alphabet twice, HH, which represents Heil Hitler. These tattoos can be found anywhere on the body, it doesn’t have to be on the forehead, like this gentleman is displaying. Ladies, we hear he’s single . . .

The Three Dots

The three dots tattoo is a very common prison tattoo that symbolizes ‘mi vida loca’ or ‘my crazy life.’ It doesn’t symbolize any particular gang, but rather the gang lifestyle. It’s typically found on the hands or around the eyes.

The three dots tattoo can also carry some religious significance, representing the holy trinity. Dot tattoos are often done using the stick-and-poke method. This is a home-made tattoo procedure that involves very rudimentary tools, like a pencil or a sewing needle. Almost any sharp objects can be used, and it’s often whatever the inmates can get their hands on.

The Five Dots

Don’t confuse this one with the three dots tattoo. The five dots, sometimes known as the quincunx, represents time done in prison. The four dots on the outside represent the four walls, and the dot on the inside represents the prisoner.

The five dots is actually an international prison tattoo; it is common among both American and European prison inmates. The five dots are typically tattooed on the prisoner’s hand between the thumb and forefinger. Five dots on other parts of the body can have a different meaning. For example, an association with the People Nation gang. People Nation is a Chicago-based gang who’s symbols include the five-pointed star, the five-pointed crown and the five dots.


ACAB is an acronym very commonly found inked on the bodies of British prisoners. It stands for All Cops Are Bastards.

Some with the tattoo claim that ACAB stands for ‘Always Carry A Bible’, but it’s widely believed that these are just people who regret their decisions or are trying to make a good impression. It seems like it must make things easy for the cops in England, having all of the criminals self-identify with this tattoo. It is often found on the knuckles. These days many British youths who have never gone to prison have ACAB tattoos to signify their willingness to go to prison for their crew or gang.

The Clock With No Hands

This tattoo is, fairly obviously, representative of ‘doing time’ and doing a lot of it. Those serving a longer sentence might get this tattoo done on their wrist, with watch straps and all, much like a real watch.

The clock face itself can come in a few forms, such as the face of a wall clock or a grandfather clock. Not all clock tattoos are tied to prison; generally just the ones lacking hands.

Aryan Brotherhood

This prison gang has a variety of tattoos to look out for, ranging from ‘AB’ to Nazi symbols like a swastika or SS bolts. The Brotherhood makes up 1 percent of the inmate population, but are responsible for 20 percent of murders inside of U.S. prisons, so identifying these tattoos are extremely beneficial.

The tattoos can also be referred to as Alice Baker, the One-Two, or The Brand.


Norteño tattoos represent the Nuestra Familia gang, which is associated with Hispanic gangs in Northern California. Their tattoos include the word Norteño, Nuestra Familia, a sombrero symbol, the letter N or the number 14, symbolizing the 14th letter of the alphabet (yup – the letter N).

The Norteños are rivals of the Suerños, Hispanic gangs based out of Southern California. The unofficial dividing line between the two is in Delano, California. The Norteños identify themselves with red bandanas and mainly get their income from smuggling and distributing cocaine, heroin and meth.

La Eme

‘La Eme,’ or The M, is the symbol of the Mexican Mafia. They are one of the largest and most ruthless prison gangs in the U.S. They’re allied with the Aryan Brotherhood, and have a common enemy in the Nuestra Familia.

La Eme was started not in Mexico, but in Mexican-Americans who were incarcerated in American prisons. La Eme is a Sureño gang, belonging to a large affiliation of Hispanic gangs in Southern California.

Playing cards

Playing cards, or suits of the deck in general, usually indicate an inmate who likes to gamble. This applies to gambling games both within prison and without; it can also represent a person who generally views life as a gamble.

This tattoo is very popular in Russian prisons, where each deck has its own meaning. A spade represents a thief; clubs symbolize criminals in general. Diamonds are reserved for stoolpigeons and informants – if the cards have this deck, then it was likely applied with force. Hearts imply that someone is looking for a romantic partner in the prison, which may also be forcibly applied.



These letters stand for ‘Evil, Wicked, Mean, Nasty.’ Having no particular affiliation with any gang, they simply represent the general disposition of some prison inmates.

Typically found on the knuckles, these types of tattoos were popularized in 1955 by Robert Mitchum in ‘The Night of the Hunter.’ His sociopathic preacher character had the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on the knuckles of each hand, which has brought about other variants such as ‘Rock/Roll’ and ‘Stay/Down.’

Cross On Chest

Particularly found in Russian prisons, chest tattoos symbolize a ‘Prince of Thieves.’ This is the highest rank a Russian convict can achieve, and are generally worn by higher-ups in the mob.

Russian prisons have a unique and intricate history of prison tattoos, each with their own unique meaning. Another example are bells, symbolizing freedom, or a tiger on the chest is symbolic of aggression toward the police.


This acronym is commonly found on the bodies of British prisoners and stands for “All Cops Are Bastards.”

Some claim that A.C.A.B. also stands for “Always Carry A Bible,” but these are widely believed to be people who regret their tattoo decision. Often found on the knuckles, the tattoo symbolizes a willingness to go to prison for your crew or gang.