Unspeakable Crimes Common Prison Tattoos and What They Mean  

Mike Rothschild
11.5M views 26 items

Prison tattoos. What do they mean? Though not technically legal, prison tattooing is a tradition that transcends race, nationality, or affiliation. Virtually all long-term prisoners have some kind of prison-applied ink, with each tattoo containing intricate and codified meanings.

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 his or her 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.


1488 is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Common Prison Tattoos and What They Mean
Photo: Police Mugshot
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.”


Cobwebs is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Common Prison Tattoos and What They Mean
Photo:  Phillip/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0
A cobweb tattoo on the elbow usually represents a long prison term, as if the wearer is caught in the web of a spider and will never get out. Cobwebs can also have racist connotations, usually if applied under the arm and worn by someone with other race-based tattoos. They can even mean that the wearer has killed a person of another race, but not always.


Teardrops is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Common Prison Tattoos and What They Mean
Photo:  J. Ross Baughman/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0
A common and easily applied prison tattoo, the teardrop has a number of different meanings. Traditionally, it means the wearer has killed someone, but this is not always the case. It can mean a lengthy prison sentence, or, when simply the outline of a teardrop, can mean the wearer is in prison for attempted murder. Or it can mean the wearer had a friend murdered and will be out for revenge.

Three Dots

Three Dots is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Common Prison Tattoos and What They Mean
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Three dots around the eyes usually signify some kind of allegiance with a Mexican gang – meaning in Spanish, “mi vida loca” or “my crazy life.” They can also have religious significance, standing for the Holy Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).