To a gang member, tattoos represent belonging. They show this person’s loyalty in no uncertain terms—along with how they feel about outside groups.
“Gang tattoos function as a clear and definite indication of membership,” say Louis Kontos and David C. Brotherton in Encyclopedia of Gangs. “They are often used to distinguish a true member from a wannabe.” Getting “tagged” with a tattoo signifies a high level of commitment to the gang, as well as having proven oneself with the gang, as the authors say. That’s why gang members often have their tattoo work done in very prominent spots, like the face, neck, and hands.
Here are some common types of tattoos used by gangs and what they mean.
Numbers and Letters
Gangs often choose numbers or letters to signify membership in their group. Aryan Brotherhood uses “AB” to represent itself, for instance. Some gangs use part of their name in tattoos. For instance, the Mexican Mafia uses tattoos that read “Mafia” or “eMe”—the pronunciation of the letter “M” in Spanish.
White supremacist groups often use numerical tattoos such as 4/20 (Hitler’s birthday) or 100% (meaning 100% white), writes Laura Finley in Gangland.
To prove they align with the gang’s principles, gang members often get tattoos of hate symbols. White gangs use various symbols to represent white power and hatred toward other groups, as the Anti-Defamation League says. Some white-supremacist groups incorporate two lightning bolts into their symbols to represent the SS of Nazi Germany or a shield with hateful symbols in each quadrant.
Gangs have often taken other existing symbols and used them for their own purposes, giving the symbols new meaning. The Latin Kings use a five-point crown, which stands for “love, respect, sacrifice, honor, and obedience,” within the gang.
Sometimes, the imagery signifies heritage. The Mexican Mafia uses a snake and eagle, taken from the Mexican flag. Many white supremacist gangs use Celtic symbols like a shield, Celtic cross, or crossed ax and sword merged with hateful symbols. Often, these symbols are combined with hateful imagery. The Aryan Brotherhood, the oldest prison gang in the U.S., often uses a shamrock coupled with a swastika, and some gangs use a Celtic cross interlocked with a swastika.
The Crips and Gangster Disciples gangs sometimes use the Star of David as a gang identifier. We recently removed a Star of David tattoo from a client who had gotten it in prison, where people often get gang or hate tattoos in order to protect themselves.
Because of what these tattoos signify and how obvious they are, former gang members often need to have them removed in order to move forward in their lives. That’s why the Removery takes pride in covering or removing gang and hate symbols for people who are working to transform their lives, allowing them to make a fresh start.
Laura Finley, Gangland: An Encyclopedia of Gang Life from Cradle to Grave
Louis Kontos & David C. Brotherton, Encyclopedia of Gangs.
Margo DeMello, Inked: Tattoos and Body Art Around the World.