What Are the Meanings of Prison Tattoos?
What Are the Meanings of Prison Tattoos?

What Are the Meanings of Prison Tattoos?

Prison tattoos have long been a subject of curiosity and intrigue. These tattoos serve as a visual language within the confines of the prison system, carrying deep meanings and conveying important messages. In this article, we will explore the rich symbolism and hidden messages behind prison tattoos. From simple dots to elaborate designs, each tattoo tells a unique story and offers a glimpse into the complex world of prison culture. So, grab a cup of coffee and join us on this fascinating journey.

The Origins of Prison Tattoos

In order to truly understand the meanings behind prison tattoos, we must delve into their origins. The practice of tattooing in prisons can be traced back to the early days of incarceration. In an environment where personal belongings are scarce and individuality is suppressed, tattoos provide a way for inmates to express themselves and assert their identity. Prison tattoos also serve as a form of protection, marking one’s affiliation with a particular group and acting as a deterrent to potential threats.

The Evolution of Prison Tattoo Culture

Over the years, prison tattoo culture has evolved and developed its own set of symbols, codes, and meanings. What was once a crude and improvised art form has now become a complex system of communication. These tattoos often serve as a visual record of an individual’s criminal history, affiliations, and personal beliefs. Understanding the meanings behind these tattoos can offer valuable insights into an inmate’s life and experiences.

The Meanings Behind Common Prison Tattoos

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common prison tattoos and their associated meanings:

1. Teardrop Tattoo

The teardrop tattoo is one of the most recognizable symbols in the world of prison tattoos. Typically found below the eye, the teardrop can have various meanings depending on its placement and design. It is often associated with a significant loss or the death of a loved one. In some cases, it represents the number of people the wearer has killed. However, it is important to note that the interpretation of the teardrop tattoo can vary among different prison communities.

2. Spider Web Tattoo

The spider web tattoo is commonly inked on the elbow and is often associated with a lengthy prison sentence. Each ring of the web represents a year behind bars, while the center of the web symbolizes captivity. This tattoo serves as a warning to others, indicating that the wearer is an experienced and dangerous criminal.

3. Barbed Wire Tattoo

Symbolizing confinement and entrapment, the barbed wire tattoo is frequently seen on the forearms or wrists of inmates. It signifies a long history of imprisonment and the struggle against authority. The barbed wire tattoo can also be a symbol of protection, warding off potential threats or indicating membership in a specific gang.

4. Clock without Hands Tattoo

A clock without hands is a powerful tattoo often worn by inmates facing life sentences. It represents the notion that time has lost its meaning and that the wearer will never be released from prison. This tattoo serves as a constant reminder of the lengthy sentence and the life that has been lost behind bars.

5. Cross Tattoo

The cross tattoo holds different meanings depending on its design and context. In prison, it can represent a commitment to a particular religion or signify protection and spiritual guidance. It can also indicate that the wearer has served time in a penitentiary. The cross is often tattooed on the chest or back, making it highly visible to others.

6. Swastika Tattoo

While not exclusive to prison tattoos, the swastika holds significant meaning within the prison culture. It is often associated with white supremacy and neo-Nazi ideologies. In some cases, inmates may adopt this symbol to align themselves with a particular gang or group. It is important to approach this symbol with caution, as its display can lead to dangerous assumptions or confrontations.

FAQs about Prison Tattoos

Q: Are all prison tattoos associated with criminal activities?

A: While many prison tattoos do carry criminal associations, not all tattoos are indicative of criminal behavior. Some inmates may choose to get tattoos purely for personal or symbolic reasons.

Q: Can prison tattoos be removed or covered up?

A: Yes, it is possible to remove or cover up prison tattoos through laser tattoo removal or by getting new tattoos that overlap the existing ones. However, these procedures can be costly and time-consuming.

Q: Are prison tattoos only common among inmates in the United States?

A: No, prison tattoos can be found in correctional facilities around the world. Each region may have its own unique set of symbols and meanings.

Q: Can non-inmates get prison tattoos?

A: Yes, individuals who have not been incarcerated can choose to get prison-style tattoos. However, it is essential to approach these tattoos with respect and understanding for their cultural significance.

Q: Do all prison tattoos have fixed meanings?

A: Not all prison tattoos have universally fixed meanings. Interpretations can vary between prisons and even among different individuals within the same facility.

Q: Are prison tattoos still prevalent in modern correctional facilities?

A: While the prevalence of prison tattoos has diminished in some facilities due to increased security measures, they still remain a significant part of prison culture in many places.


Prison tattoos are not merely ink on skin; they carry profound meanings and provide insights into the complex lives of inmates. Each tattoo tells a story, represents a personal journey, and can serve as a form of protection within the prison environment. Understanding the symbolism behind these tattoos allows us to glimpse into the hidden world of prisons and gain a deeper appreciation for the power of visual communication.

So, the next time you encounter someone with a prison tattoo, remember that there is more to it than meets the eye. It is a testament to resilience, survival, and the indomitable human spirit in the face of adversity.

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