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Prison tattoos. What do they mean?
In most Western prisons, getting a prison done inside is both illegal and unsanitary, as inmates don’t have access to the proper equipment so they make do using a variety of household objects such as staples, paperclips and lighters, with an improvised black ink made from pen ink, but also such noxious substances as melted plastic, soot, shampoo and melted Styrofoam cups. Yikes. All of which can cause infections, skin irritation, blood poisoning and death.
The most common tattoos are these:
Cobwebs: a small black cobweb tattooed on the elbow signifies a prison sentence, the design suggests the prisoner has been resting on his/her elbow for so long a spider has made a web there and it is implied that the length of the web signifies the length of the sentence. Although surely it would be more appropriate to have a tattoo of a spider’s web on their arse or maybe even their genitals?
Teardrop: a familiar tattoo is a teardrop under the eye. But which eye is important. Under the right eye, a teardrop can (depending on the prison) suggests that they’ve committed a murder (with the number of tears indicating how many people they’ve killed), that a fellow inmate, family member or gang cohort has been murdered and they are seeking revenge, or (if the teardrop is an outline only) it signifies an attempted murder.
Where-as a teardrop under the left eye signifies that the prisoner is or was previously owned by a convict, that they were someone’s bitch and that they were raped in prison. That said, some female prisoners have a tear-drop tattoo to symbolise their kinship with a spouse on the outside, or simply to express a loss of a loved one. What started as a very clear message of what the tear-drop means, has since changed a lot. Therefore, as different prisons alternate the meaning, a tear-drop tattoo could mean the death of a gang member in one prison and that you’ve been someone’s bitch elsewhere… which must be confusing. If it was me, I’d have a tattoo which reads “I’m doing six years for stealing a copper’s Guinness… no bum-sex, thank you”.
Dots: Small dots on the hands or around the eyes have different significance. A small single dot under the eye is sometimes known as the “jail dot” and signifies one ex-convict to another in a discrete way, as the dot could easily be confused with a freckle or paint fleck, if you don’t know what you’re looking for. It could also mean “hi, I’m a new parent with a small toddler and a paint set”, so be careful. Two dots side-by-side represents a sibling/relative/loved-one who is also incarcerated, or is dead (similar to the tear-drop, but more subtle). Although, a dot between the thumb and fore-finger of both hands indicates entering prison and leaving prison – time served.
Three dots shaped like a triangle either has Christian symbolism representing the Holy Trinity (a tattoo that surely all priests have) or an affiliation to gang-life. Four dots shaped like a square, usually around the knuckles, can mean ACAB (All Coppers Are Bastards), a tattoo for monosyllabic morons who blame the Police for rudely interrupting their criminal careers by catching them. Bad Police! How dare they! Five dots (with four in a square shape and one in the centre) represents time served in prison – the middle dot being the prisoner and the wider the dots, the longer the sentence.
Think of prison tat’s like the prison version of Linkd-In (call it Inkd In, if you will - hahahaha); they should tattoo their prison skills on their arms; a spoon signifies “I can cook”, a lawnmower means “I don’t grass”, and a hot-dog means “my butt-hole is big enough to smuggle in a whole half pound of sausage meat”. Which is always useful, if you’re having a bar-bee-que.
Playing cards: these are popular in Russia, it can mean that the person likes gambling, or treats life like it’s a gamble, or as each deck has its own meaning – hearts means they’re looking for love, spades for thieves, clubs for rapists and sex-pests, and diamonds for stoolpigeons and informants (obviously, these tattoos are done by force, not by choice) – which really does mean, if you have any of these tattoos, your life really will be a gamble.
And there’s Barbed Wire: again, this symbolises a prison sentence with each thorn representing a year inside, or barbed wire across the forehead means a life sentence without parole... and that for the rest of your life outside of prison, you’re going to have to explain that to everyone you meet, until you get so bored, you kill them, just to get back into prison… and then have to get a longer tattoo.
Let’s dispel a few prison tattoo misconceptions:
Stars behind the ear: if a female prisoner has a number of stars behind her ear, it is usually thought to mean that the number of stars represents how many children she currently has in care. But it isn’t. It was a tacky fashion in 1980’s/90’s, which is supposed to mean hope, ambition or loss, but (to be honest, like most tattoos) it can mean whatever you want it to mean.
Swallow Tattoo: some people believe a swallow tattoo represents a prison sentence with the length of the swallow’s tail denoting the time served, but this is untrue. Originally this was a symbol used by sailors to denote a successful voyage, a tour of duty, and in the 17th 18th and 19th century, one swallow meant they had travelled 5000 nautical miles, two swallows meant 10,000 nautical miles, etc.
And if you ever see a prisoner with a tattoo marked with two small but jagged letters like two lightening strikes, shaped like an ‘SS’, usually 7mm long and placed 20cm above the elbow towards the armpit, that is a symbol of the Waffen-SS and indicates that they have Nazi sympathies. Nice. Alternatively, to show they’re a racist, they could just tattoo on their arm “I am a c**t”, although I guess SS saves on ink and (if they ever decide to stop being massive arse-candle, they could pretend that SS stands for Solid Stools (suggesting they’re a sufferer of constipation).
Of course, some of these tattoos are done, not to have any specific meaning, but simply because the person thinks they look nice. But they don’t. They look shit. They might as well get a tattoo of a dog doing a massive dump as its steaming turd spells their name. Or just wipe some dog-shit on their arms and have done with it. Next week I plan to set-up a tattoo parlour called Dodgy Doggy Bum-Nugget Tattoos, if you’re keen, I can only do designs which are brown, smelly and smudgey.
If you found this interesting? Check out the Mini Mile episodes of the Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast, or click on the link below to listen to an episode.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London”, nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards 2018", and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 50 deaths, over just a one mile walk
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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