Common Prison Tattoos and What They Mean

Prison tattoos. What do they mean? Though not technically legal, prison tattooing is a tradition that transcends race, nationality, or affiliation. 

Prison tattoos are usually applied with crude, homemade needles and ink made from contraband pens or other materials. As such, they're often green or blue, with little color or variation in tone. But what prison tattoos lack in beauty, they make up for in story. The tattoos a prisoner wears tells a personal story, indicates what gang they're affiliated with, where they're from, and what they did. Some simply indicate a disrespect for authority, others in prison show that the wearer is a member of the Mexican Mafia or Aryan Brotherhood and is not to be messed with.

Looking for prison tattoo meanings? Here are some of the most common prison tattoo designs created by convicts, each with their own meaning and story.

Photo: RJ / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • 1488

    Photo: Unknown / / Fair Use

    A seemingly innocuous number, “1488” actually has a very specific meaning — and it’s a nasty one. The number 14 stands for “14 words” or the mantra of the Aryan Brotherhood — the 14-word phrase “we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The 88 is the equivalent of HH, or “Heil Hitler.” H is the eighth letter of the alphabet.

  • Cobwebs

    A cobweb tattoo on the elbow usually represents a long prison term. It represents that the prisoner is caught up in the system. 

  • Teardrops

    A common and easily applied prison tattoo, the teardrop has a number of different meanings. It originally represented that the person with the tattoo was "owned" by another prisoner. The teardrop signified their pain and humilitation. But it also came to mean the wearer had slain someone in jail. If a teardrop is placed under the right eye, this can also signify that the owner has lost a relative or loved one.

  • Three Dots

    Three dots around the eyes usually signify some sort of allegiance with a Mexican gang — meaning in Spanish, “mi vida loca,” or “my [haphazard] life.” They can also have religious significance, standing for the Holy Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

  • Five Dots

    Not to be confused with the three-dots tattoo, the five-dots tattoo is worn between the thumb and forefinger and is also called the “quincunx.” This one has several meanings, but is especially popular among Asian gang members. The tattoo is meant to symbolize the world or a group of friends, and it means something close to "me against the world."

  • Twin lightning bolts tattooed on a prisoner usually signify allegiance to the Aryan Brotherhood or another white power group. They’re meant to represent the dual lightning bolt runes of the SS, the elite soldiers of Nazi Germany — as well as the enforcers of racial purity laws.