Citation info: Goldberg, Lina. "Gang Tattoos: Signs of Belonging and the Transience of Signs" Dec. 01

Gang Tattoos: Signs of Belonging and the Transience of Signs

by Lina Goldberg

Nothing symbolizes gang members' commitment to their gangs more forcefully than the gang tattoo. These symbols proclaim the individual's allegiance to the group in a way that is both permanent and deeply personal--being written on the body itself. But in recent years, thanks to a combination of social and technological changes, the significance and the permanence of gang tattoos are both being challenged. As a result, it appears that the power of these signifiers has begun to erode.

Tattoos are thought to have existed since the beginning of mankind. The oldest tattoo ever found was on a man frozen in a glacier near Austria who was believed to have died in approximately 4000 B.C. Although it's not known whether the frozen Austrian was a criminal, for most of recorded history tattoos have been associated with unlawful behavior and the underworld.

The early Romans tattooed slaves and criminals as a means of identification. During the years 300-600 C.E. in Japan, criminals were sometimes tattooed as punishment for their crimes. Criminals in the Mediterranean region in the third century C.E. were often tattooed or branded with symbols indicating the crimes they committed; sometimes the victim's name was even emblazoned on the criminal's forehead.

But while society has often imposed tattoos in order to identify the tattooed as criminals, many people have also embraced these stigmatizing marks. Being an outlaw can be a source of pride as well as shame. Gang members in particular take pride in branding themselves as outside of the boundaries of conventional society. Until recently, tattooing was restricted to stigmatized members of society, including gang members, carnival workers and prisoners--categories that often overlapped. It is significant, however, that tattoos were not imposed on these groups, but chosen by them as a means of self-identification and, often, a symbol of belonging.

Tattoos have long been a means of identifying oneself with a group or culture. Gangs were one of the first groups to use tattoos as a means of denoting identity and affinity, but groups as diverse as the military, sports teams, and even the popular country group The Dixie Chicks have used matching tattoos as a visible sign of the members' bond with one another.

For gang members, however, tattoos are a way of both asserting membership in the gang and flaunting their lack of membership in straight society. For this reason, street gang members will often get tattoos on their hands and faces so as to permanently bar them from being a part of normal society. The larger and more prominent the tattoo, the harder it is to hide, the more impressive it is to other gang members. For this reason, two of the most widespread gang tattoos are often found on the most visible parts of the body: the hands and the face. For example, 18th Street gang member Sergio Ochoa tattooed the numbers "187" (the California Penal Code section which refers to murder) above his eye after being convicted of a 1990 killing of a rival gang member. A common tattoo among Hispanic gang members from many different gangs is the pachuco cross tattooed on the hand between the thumb and index finger. Alternatively, the same area is often embellished with three dots in a pyramid shape, a symbol that stands for "mi vida loca," "my crazy life." Southeast Asian gangsters have adopted the same tattoo of the three dots, defining its meaning as "To O Can Gica," or "I care for nothing." In Cuban prisons the same tattoo declares that the wearer's criminal aptitude is in larceny.

Figure 1 The pachuco cross is the simplest gang tattoo, and one of the most pervasive. It consists of a small cross with three lines or dots above it.

Figure 2 Three dots representing, "mi vida loca," or "my crazy life," and is commonly tattooed on the hands or face.

The social impact of such visible tattoos made many professional tattooists uneasy about providing them. In his book, Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo With Gangs, Sailors, and Street-Corner Punks 1950-1965, tattoo artist Samuel M. Steward says, "Ethical tattoo artists did nor work on hands or faces, unless someone wanted a pachuco cross covered or had some other tattoo that had to be concealed…. I wouldn't tattoo the hand but many unscrupulous jaggers up the street would. From the moment a person got a hand tattooed, his life was enormously complicated. Such tattoos could not be removed from ordinary surgical methods as others can… "

The most common tattoo among gangsters of all nationalities is one that denotes the gang that they are in. This is seen as the mark of lifelong membership. The gang ethos of "blood in, blood out"--the idea that the prospective member must kill someone as the price of admission to the gang and cannot leave except by dying himself--is embodied in the tattoo as a sign of permanent belonging to the gang. Indeed, in some gangs the gang tattoo must be earned by completing a serious mission or hit for the gang.

Often gang tattoos will simply say the name of the gang that the wearer is in, usually in Old English lettering or script. Often the gang name will be slightly disguised by giving it an assigned number. For example, the Nortenos will often use 14, X4, XIV (all denoting the 14th letter of the alphabet, N) in their tattoos. Surenos affiliated with the Mexican Mafia (La eMe) use the number 13, X3, and XIII (for M, the 13th letter of the alphabet). The Vice Lords of Chicago are often recognizable by their tattoos of the number 312, which is the Chicago area code. The 18th Street gang of Los Angeles, not surprisingly, uses the number 18. (Incidentally, they will sometimes beat their prospective members for 18 seconds as a way to "jump them in.")

Gangs also find other ways to identify themselves without using their full gang names. The Nortenos use the Spanish word for "fourteen," "catorce." The Surenos (Sureno means "southerner," for Southern California) sometimes use the Aztec language, Nahuatl, in their tattoos. "Kan," for example, means "South," and "Kanpol" means "Southerner." They will also use Aztec numerology to denote the number 13.

Figure 3 The Aztec number meaning "13" is sometimes used in tattoos by Surenos.

In addition to advertising gang membership, tattoos can tell other details about the bearer, including rank in the gang and number of "hits" or other services performed on the gang's behalf. Which side of the body the tattoo is on also carries significance. Tattoos can also tell more personal details about gang members' lives, such as memorials to deceased loved ones, the names and birthdates of their children, what country or region they are from, and how many of their loved ones have died while they were incarcerated. A common tattoo among gang members is a small teardrop below the eye. Although some take this symbol to mean that the bearer has killed someone, others use it to show that someone close to the bearer has died, especially if this occurred while the tattooed individual was incarcerated.

Tattoos are also used to express gang members' often fatalist philosophy of life. One popular tattoo among Hispanic gangsters is a depiction of the smiling and crying comedy and tragedy masks, meaning, "play now and pay later," or "my happy life, my sad life." Clock faces are also found within the intricate artwork that can make up a gangster's tattoos. If the clock has no hands, it symbolizes doing time in prison. The hands can be on specific numbers to signify the gang alliance; for example, a Norteno might be emblazoned with a clock face with one hand on the one, and the other on the four to signify "14." Tombstones are also common. Many gang members will get one tombstone tattooed for each year that they are incarcerated. The tombstones are inscribed with the year of freedom that was lost. Tombstones with "R.I.P." and a date show the loss of a loved one. Often these tattoos are reserved for fellow gang members who were killed in gang related violence. A tattoo of a cell window through which one can see the sun or birds flying signify that the bearer is waiting to get out of prison. A similar Russian prison gang tattoo depicts birds flying in the sun rising over the ocean's horizon, meaning, "I was born free and should again be free."

For gangs, the use of tattoos as a means of group identification can be a life or death matter. Nowhere is that more true than in the case of gangs within penal institutions, a world in which tattoos can be particularly important.

Upon being sent to prison, many people who were not previously members of gangs quickly find that their survival "on the inside" depends on their membership in a prison gang. "Certain tattoos inspire fear and respect and give the wearer an abrasive edge," says Douglas Kent Hall in his book, Prison Tattoos. "In prison, that edge becomes reason enough for acquiring them. Inmates take risks for security. A few well-chosen motorcycle gang tattoos might make life in tough cellblocks a lot safer and easier. On the other hand, a convict caught wearing gang tattoos fraudulently may suffer serious disgraces and even get himself killed." Because of the high percentage of prisoners who are in gangs, much of the tattoo work done inside prisons should be considered gang tattoos.

Street gangs often have factions inside of prisons, and in fact many street gangs, such as the Surenos, Nortenos, and Aryan Brotherhood, have their roots in prison gangs. But while street gangs allow for diversity, prison gangs tend to be race-based. Street gangs generally revolve around a specific neighborhood or turf, so their racial makeup reflects that of their neighborhood. Of course the neighborhoods in which they are based are often segregated, leading to same-race gangs, but the focus of the gang is not primarily racial. Gangs inside prisons, by contrast, are sharply divided along racial lines and are often race-based in nature, such as the Mexican Mafia, Aryan Warriors, and Black Guerrilla Family.

As a result, whereas street gangs' tattoos are commonly neighborhood-- or turf-affiliated, gang tattoos made in prison are often as race-based as the gangs they represent.

For example, many of the black prison gangs, such as the Black Guerrilla Family and its spin-off, 415, also known as the Kumi African Nation, use symbols of Africa--including pictures of the continent itself--in their tattoos. For example, a popular tattoo among members of the Kumi African Nation depicts a yero, or African Warrior, rising up out of an outline of the continent of Africa. In his left hand he holds a machine gun, and in his right he holds a flag bearing the numbers 415. These images reflect the African orientation of both the Black Guerrilla Family and the Kumi African Nation, which both encourage their members to learn Mau Mau history and words drawn from the Swahili language, which they use to communicate with each other in ways that will not be accessible to outsiders.

Two of the strongest Hispanic prison gangs--The Mexican Mafia (La eMe), and MRU, Mi Raza Unida (My United People)--use a symbol drawn from the Mexican flag, the snake and eagle as their emblem, and will usually incorporate this into their tattoos. The founder of MRU, Ernest Mercado, was allegedly killed outside of prison by a member of the Mexican Mafia for adopting the same snake and eagle symbol that the Mexican Mafia used and believed they had exclusive rights to. Many Hispanic gangsters are also tattooed with Aztec imagery, such as the popular image of an Aztec warrior carrying an unconscious maiden. This reflects their vision of their heritage; by the same token, some members of the Mexican Mafia have actually learned the Aztec language, Nahuatl, as a means to communicate privately with one another.

Within prisons, white gangs have a prominence that they do not enjoy on the outside. Because of their minority status within the penal system, many whites who would not otherwise consider gang membership or devote themselves to the "white race" feel compelled to join a gang for their own safety. Under those circumstances, visible identification as a member of the protecting gang in the form of a tattoo becomes an important way to guarantee personal safety.

The first white prison gangs emerged during the 1950s in the California prison system, a development that eventually led to the formation of the Aryan Brotherhood--one of the most famous and brutal prison gangs.

Figure 4 A common tattoo of the Aryan Brotherhood incorporates a shamrock, "666" (the "mark of the beast") and the letters "AB."

Many white gangs use Irish, Viking and German symbolism in their tattoos, regardless of the gang members' actual pedigree. The Aryan Brotherhood's common tattoos feature shamrocks, Nazi emblems such as swastikas and "SS" lightning bolts, Viking heads, and the slogan "Sinn Fein," which in Gaelic means, "we stand alone."

The importance of gang tattoos in prisons can be gauged by the trouble prisoners are willing to go to in order to get these signifiers permanently etched onto their skin, for getting a tattoo in prison can be a long and arduous process. Because of the health risks associated with unsanitary tattooing (such as the spread of disease via shared needles and far-from-sanitary inks), most prisons have banned the practice and are vigilant in preventing inmates from getting new tattoos while incarcerated. Nevertheless, prison tattooists and their customers manage to find a way to flout these regulations.

Tattoos in prison are done one of two ways. First is the freehand method. Using India ink or ink derived from "soot created by burning plastic eating utensils mixed with Prell shampoo and water," the tattoo is applied using a needle or piece of sharp wire in small dots. These tattoos are noticeably crude and can often appear childish. More ambitious prison practitioners are able to attain very professional-looking results using tattoo machines made out of, for example, a Walkman motor, a hollowed out pen, a guitar string or wire from a lighter, and a battery. These bits of everyday junk can be put together to create tattoos that are the equal of many high-quality commercial efforts.

During the tattooing process, however, both the tattooist and the recipient are under constant threat of being caught in the act by prison guards. If their activity is discovered while the tattoo is being created, or even if they are merely caught with tattooing tools, they face the likely prospect of being put in lockdown and losing all their privileges, and the tattooing paraphernalia will almost certainly be confiscated. The tremendous risk involved means that getting a detailed tattoo is a badge of pride for inmates. So great is the prestige of prison tattoos that gang members outside of prison will often use the same methods that inmates use rather than go to professional tattoo parlors. These homemade tattoos can be just as detailed and intricate as professional ones, even though the tools are often improvised. If tattoos show the street gang member's pride in his or her "outlaw" status, in prison a gang member's tattoos offer proof that he or she has flouted the rules and gotten away with it.

Today the role of tattoos is now facing a different kind of challenge: the adoption of tattoos as a standard accessory by large portions of mainstream society. True, few middle-class rebels have gone so far as to get facial tattoos, or tattoos on their hands-practices long common amongst gang members. But although gang members try to use tattoos to separate themselves from mainstream society, the effect that gang tattoos have had on the hipper strata of the middle class is undeniable. Teenagers who may have no idea of these symbols' original meaning are now wearing tattoos that were originally worn by gang members as badges of honor.

A case in point is the spider web tattooed on one's elbow. Among gang members, this tattoo was a code, readable by other gangsters in prison and on the outside, showing that the bearer had served serious time in the penitentiary. In some parts of the country the same tattoo meant that the wearer had killed a member of a minority group. In fact, James Burmeister was convicted in 1995 of killing a black couple, an act he committed solely because he wanted to wear the spider web tattoo that was popular among members of the Aryan Brotherhood. But while this tattoo holds powerful and specific significance for gang members, to the middle class that has co-opted the symbol it has no meaning beyond the idea that it is simply "cool." Thus Robert Van Winkle (formerly famous as the rapper Vanilla Ice) and Lars Frederiksen of the band Rancid both sport spiderweb tattoos. In a 1996 episode of Melrose Place, one of the characters gets drunk before going to tattoo parlor and wakes up the next day with a huge spider web tattooed on his elbow.

The spider web may be the most common prison tattoo to be assimilated by the middle class, but it is not the only one. People who have no affiliations to or interest in gangs have had themselves tattooed with Old English script on their chests, backs and arms, a style that used to be exclusive to gang members. These non-gang-member tattoo wearers believe they can imbibe the "gangsta" aura without having to lead a gangster life. Thus Dody Lira, a highly tattooed but law-abiding 25-year-old from Dallas, Texas, is proud to have several tattoos that are in the same style as gang tattoos, including a large tattoo of his own last name on the outside of his left calf in Old English lettering. "They have influenced me, by planting a symbolic badge that can be worn for everyone to see, for the rest of my life," he explained. "It all ties in with symbolism--they all stand for something; it's universally known." But he acknowledges that there are some gang tattoos he would not adopt, saying, "You see a dude with 187 on his forearm, he's probably a killer." Still, he sees no conflict between staying within the bounds of polite society while sporting gang-style tattoos. "Yuppies also drive Harleys," he explains. "That doesn't mean that they are beer drinking, wife smacking bikers."

Research has yet to be done on the effects of this middle-class enthusiasm for gang-style tattoo art, but it seems likely that tattoos may be losing their cachet as symbols of outlawry. It is even more probable that at least some gang members have started shying away from getting obvious gang-related tattoos in recent years because of the increased attention that law enforcement agencies are paying to tattoos as signs of gang membership.

Public demand for police crackdowns against gangs has given law enforcement new powers against suspected gang members and therefore drawn greater attention to signifiers of gang membership, particularly tattoos. With the advent of special sentencing provisions that provide harsher punishment for crimes that are gang-related, law enforcement has a vested interest in being able to recognize and prove gang membership.

Thus police in some states, including California and Florida, have started keeping detailed databases detailing particular gang tattoos as a means of identifying gang members. When suspected gang members are arrested or incarcerated, police will often take photographic evidence of specific tattoos and include that in the prisoners' permanent record, tagging them as gangbangers for the duration of their prison time and beyond.

In California, one of the nation's most comprehensive and severe juvenile justice laws was passed in March 2000 in the hopes of curbing juvenile crime. Proposition 21 allows youths as young as 14 to be prosecuted as adults and serve felony prison sentences for crimes deemed to be gang-related, even if they are otherwise relatively minor crimes, such as graffiti. The proposition also allows juvenile records that were previously confidential to be opened in the case of gang members, and allows gang-related nonviolent crimes to be eligible as "strikes" under California's "three strikes" law. As wish sex-offender laws, it requires gang members to register as such in city and statewide databases. Most severely, it makes juveniles eligible to receive the death sentence for certain gang-related offenses.

Although the California law is the most punitive of this new breed of anti-gang juvenile justice laws, the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999 passed by the U.S. Senate encourages other states to pass similar laws. While these laws do not specify how a suspect's gang membership is to be proved, local law enforcement personnel have come up with a variety of methods for accomplishing this--and gang-related tattoos are regarded by police as a key indicator.

Some agencies use a point system, giving various weights to different criteria for determining gang membership. Whether a suspect uses gang hand signs, how he or she dresses, whether he or she appears in group photos with known gang members, whether he or she engages in writing gang-related graffiti--these are typical of the criteria used to evaluate whether someone is in a gang. Other than an open verbal declaration of gang membership, the indicator that is given the highest point value--that is regarded as the most damning evidence of being a member-is a gang tattoo.

Thus the very things that make tattoos appealing as signifiers of gang membership--their visibility and permanence--are also the factors that make them appealing to law enforcement as a way of identifying and punishing gang members.

This in turn has begun to challenge the permanence of tattoos. The increased interest in tattooing among the middle class has also spurred development of new techniques for removing tattoos. What was once permanent is now less so, although removing a tattoo is still a major undertaking. This has affected gang members as well as movie stars. There are now many popular community initiatives to provide free or low-cost tattoo removal to former gang members. Proponents of these plans say that youth in rehabilitation programs who have their gang tattoos removed are more likely to stay out of the gangs and off drugs. It also allows adults who had previously been barred the work force because of highly visible tattoos to support themselves and their families after removal of the stigmatizing gang insignia. Most of these plans ask that the recipients of the services pay for them by performing community service of some sort, rather than paying for the procedure, which can cost as much as $7,000 otherwise.

Dr. Tolbert Wilkinson, a Texas-based doctor, works with one of these programs contends that they are highly effective. He sites a survey conducted by the Bandera Police Department, which found that 95 percent of former gang members who had submitted to having their gang tattoos removed "are now drug-free and employed. "

A 14-year-old who has his gang's name tattooed across his forehead is committing himself to a lifetime of identification not only with a specific gang, but with the outlaw life. "Sometimes it makes [other people] afraid if they see these things [gang tattoos], and they don't know what to make of them," says Jim Foley, a physician who works with another de-tattooing program, the Minnesota-based "Getting Out." "And the kids have changed. They want to get rid of the mark, the tattoo, that's the stigma of the past."

Like many commitments, the commitment to a gang can fade. Now thanks to plastic surgery techniques, so can a gang tattoo.


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Citation info: Goldberg, Lina. "Gang Tattoos: Signs of Belonging and the Transience of Signs" Dec. 01

Copyright Lina Goldberg. All Rights Reserved. [Find Books on Gang Tattoos]

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