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.
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
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”
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.
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
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.”
- 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.
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 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
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