Gang Tattoos and Tattoo Designs


Bonds of Brotherhood – On the Street, In the Pen and Around the Globe

For a great deal of the history of the tattoo, it has been associated with criminals, outlaws and misfits who were ostracized by family members and society at large. A ritual once forced upon them, it didn’t take long for these outlaws to embrace tattoo as a symbol of their bravery, daring and to purposefully mark and exclude themselves from “normal” society. Gang tattoos and gang tattoo designs are no different.

grim reaper, death, guns, blood

guns, smoke, banner

bullet, bullets, gun, urban

Gangs In History

The history of gangs in America in generally traced back to the early 1800’s, when immigrant youth banded together to stave off oppression and alienation. Once coined with the term “youth gang”, today, the U.S. Department of Justice says that it takes more than being a group of young people to be a gang. Modern gangs are defined by a habitual involvement in a pattern of criminal acts. And in America, between the years of 1980 and 1996, the number and popularity of gangs soared to unprecedented levels.

In 1999, there were an estimated 26,000 different gangs boasting approximately 840,500 members! And no longer are gangs cordoned off to big city streets, more and more often gangs are showing up in unexpected places, like suburban and rural America.

There are gangs of nearly any conceivable variety, from prison gangs, to street gangs; from Asians to Africans to White Supremacists; and each of them has chosen their own brands and tattoos to promote their identities and affinities.

Often, gang members will not limit themselves to only one tattoo, but will proudly wear several, even tens and hundreds of tattoos. And when it comes to tattoo placement, gang members have a tendency to lean towards the obvious. Unlike many other popular tattoo canvases, gangs don’t shy away from tattoo images that are nearly impossible to conceal. In fact, many gang members are eager to permanently decorate their hands and faces, deliberately separating themselves from any chance at a “normal” life in a “normal” society.

guns, smoke, ghosts, banners

sexy, boob, breast, hottie

guns, chicks, dagger, blood

Individual Gangs And Their Identifying Tattoos

While it would be next to impossible to explain all of the different gangs and their unique tattoos, there are several popular gangs in America today. While they are all incredibly diverse from one another, they do happen to share the same sense of strength in numbers which they have in turn used to create their own counter-culture communities.

Prison Gangs

Anyone who’s been locked up can be quick to tell you that there is a unique segregation found in prisons across America. In this dangerous, melting pot environment populated by criminals of all degrees and varieties it is almost vital to survival that you quickly join a prison gang upon arrival. While segregated first by race, these gangs have their own subdivisions, not all of which get along with one another.

While you will find many different street gangs active in prison (and vice versa) there is a fatalistic do-or-die edge given to prison gangs. And in the regulated world maximum security prisons, the handiwork of the tattoo artists on the inside (who work with primitive tools and inks, all of which run them the risk to severe punishment and consequences) are the most respected of talents among inmates.

The bravery, designs and skills of prison tattoos have greatly influenced the popularity of certain prison tattoo designs in the outside world.

Some popular prison tattoo designs that are shared even by opposing gangs include a clock face without hands (which represents “doing time”), teardrops (which at once was an indicator of a murder committed, but is now used more and more often to denote a relative, lover, or fellow gang member who died while the wearer was locked up), tombstones, pictures of cell windows with the sun shining outside (which means, “I’m getting out soon”) the combined smiling and frowning theatre masks which symbolize the mentality of “play now, pay later.”

Hispanic Gangs

  • Nuestra Familia: This gang commonly tattoos themselves with the letter NF or NS. Another common image in the Nuestra Familia’s tattoo work is a sombrero over a machete which is dripping blood.
  • The New Mexican Mafia: The seal of this gang is a blade edged circle with a skull and crossed blades contained inside of it.

Another popular tattoo among Hispanics is the pachuco cross. This cross is surrounded by three small rays or dashes and is placed on the hand crease between the thumb and forefinger. Rich in religious meaning, the cross symbolizes the death and resurrection while the three rays represent each of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Hispanics also have their own meaning for a tattoo shared by many different cultures: the three dots drawn to form a triangle. Also commonly placed in the fleshy webbing between thumb and forefinger, it can symbolize “mi vida loca” (or “my crazy life”), or, if you’re in Cuba, it denotes that your criminal specialty is larceny.

Old English lettering and Aztec numbers and language also show up often in Hispanic gangs and gang related tattoos.

rose, skull, skulls, grim reaper

horror, monsters, creatures, beasts

dagger, blood, bloody

Asian Gangs and Gang Tattoos

Yakuza and Triad; Born To Kill; Dai Huen Jai, Kung Lok, Flying Dragons, Ghost Shadows; each of these is a different Asian gang. The same as with any broad racial classification, these different gangs have different views, practices, beliefs and tattoos. Some Asian gang tattoos even borrow from other races.

The three dots in a triangle, to a Southeast Asian, means “To O Can Gica” or, “I care for nothing”. Asians have also adapted the teardrop into their tattoos.

Other common Asian tattoos include: The Four T’s (“tinh, tien, tu & toi” or love, money, prison and crime), panther tattoos, tiger tattoos, eagles and cobras.

White Gangs

“White” gangs have been around for a while; some of the first gangs created were designed to offer protection and brotherhood for Irish immigrants who faced derision, difficulty and prejudice in the land of the free. While not all have been or are white supremacists, the idea of racial superiority plays a big role in gang life, whatever that race or gang may be. Some of the more popular Caucasian gang categories and their common tattoos include:

  • Biker or Motorcycle Gangs: We’ve all heard of Hell’s Angels (Motto: “Three people will keep a secret if two are dead”; Tattoos: an Air Force-like patch containing a skull wearing an aviator's cap set inside a set of wings), the Outlaws (Motto: “God forgives, Outlaws don’t”; Tattoos: a skull and crossed pistons with the word Outlaws above it in black), and the Bandidos (Motto: “We are the people our parents warned us about”; Tattoos: 1%er). These are just a few of hundreds of biker gangs. While not all restrict their membership to white males, they definitely make up the majority of their numbers.
  • Militia members. Militias, by their very nature, are small bands of armed men (and with growing popularity, women) whose sole goal in life is to use armed forced to overcome “tyranny”. There are militias in every state, and their common tattoos and patches vary widely. But you’d better believe there’s one thing they have in common – a strong backing for the N.R.A.!
  • White Supremacists. Whether it’s the KKK (who, by the way, managed to amazingly slip temporary tattoos featuring a clansmen into children’s bubble gum in Michigan in ’03), the Aryan Brotherhood (common tattoo designs include a swastika with a three leaf clover with AB, 666 and SWP in and around the clover; the word “Peckerwood” or a bluebird) or the Aryan Circle (who favor an emblem of a circle with 2 bolts of lightening in it or the letters “AC”), there is apparently no shortage of angry white men running around, with or without the stereotypical shaved head.
  • Other white gangs, especially in prison (where white gangs didn’t appear to exist until the ‘50’s in California) feature tattoos with Irish, Viking or German influences.

African American Gangs

The first of the African American gangs were a much more peaceful group of men than the ones you find on the streets of major cities today. It wasn’t until the 60’s, with the emergence of the Crips and Bloods, that this began to change. Soon, other equally fearsome black gangs were born in an effort to protect themselves from these two powerful gangs. The Crips, Bloods and the other gangs that they “inspired” are detailed more below.

  • Crips. Begun in southeast Los Angeles, they began with a bang – literally. They started out by terrorizing local neighborhoods and schools with assaults and strong arm robberies. Their color is blue, and popular tattoos incorporate the letters “WS” for West Side and the letter “C” (for Crips).
  • Bloods. Showing up first in the Compton area of California, bloods are often identified with their color, red. Tattoos include the word “crab” written upside down with a star substituted for the ‘a’, this tattoo was designed to deride Crips; “RBD” which stands for Red Blood Dragons; and, the word “blood” written across the knuckles of the right hand.
  • The Black Guerilla Family. This gang often chooses tattoos featuring a dragon attacking a prison gun tower or the letters “BGF”, typically in Old English lettering.

These different descriptions, gangs and tattoos barely scratch the surface of this widely prevalent subculture. But, there are some new changes going on.

Before you run out to get a gang tattoo (especially if you’re NOT in the gang whose art you get, and you’re just trying to “be cool”) be warned – cops across America are beginning to create a massive database of photographs and pictures of gang members, suspected gang members and their ink. This has led to two developments.

First, there has been an initiative to offer gang members the chance to have their gang tattoo designs removed or covered up at little or no cost. Secondly, in an effort to outsmart “the Man”, the newest trend about gang tattoos is not to get one. This makes it harder for police to identify members, minimizes the amount of attention individual gang members are getting.

So before you decide to run out and get a gang tattoo, consider the possible consequences!

blade, blood, bloody, straight razor

star, skull, bottle, poison

skull, horror, monsters, creatures

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