Many tattoos are chosen for their visual stimulation through the use of color and design; however, gangster (aka “gangsta”) tattoos are most often picked for their meanings. Gangsta tattoos primarily symbolize one’s allegiance to a particular area or gang, a tribute to gang members lost, or perhaps a way to show how many years a person has spent in jail. Gangsta tattoos also provide important feelings of belonging to particular gangs — permanently showing one’s allegiance. In this sense, they serve as a form of nonverbal communication, both to fellow gang members as well as to rival gang members.
Teardrop Gangsta Tattoos
Over the years, the teardrop tattoo has grown in popularity. It was thought to have originated in the 1940's from hispanic gangs. Like all tattoos, teardrop tattoos come in a variety of styles: an open teardrop, a closed teardrop, and even a half tear drop. The open teardrop, or the unfilled teardrop, is thought to stand for the fact that the wearer had killed someone. Adversely, the closed teardrop is thought to mean that the wearer has lost a loved one. The half teardrop is only half filled with ink and allegedly means that the wearer lost a loved one and then got their vengeance by murdering their loved one's killer.
It has been said that, in Australia, inmates forcibly give child molesters teardrop tattoos. This is done so that they are marked when they are eventually released.
Spider Web GangstaTattoos
Spider web tattoos have various meanings. Some wear the web on their elbow as a representation of white supremacist beliefs. It is thought that some white supremacists sport this tattoo to show they have murdered an enemy. However, spider web tattoos are most commonly worn as representations of time in jail—the webs symbolizing struggles for those caught. Some may make it out alive while others may not be so lucky.
Alpha Gansta Tattoos
Alpha tattoos use the alphabet to stand for an acronym or name of a gang and are commonly worn by both prison and street gang members. Generally, they are inked in an old English or Gothic font. Some gangs choose to wear their alpha tattoos on certain areas of their bodies.
Some of the larger prison gangs that use alpha tattoos include NF (Nuestra Familia), NLR (Nazi Low Rider) and BGF (Black Guerrilla Family). Street gangs that use alpha tattoos include VL (Vice Lord), TRG (Tiny Rascal Gang) and ALKQN (Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation).
Numerical Gangsta Tattoos
Like alpha tattoos, numerical tattoos also stand for certain gangs. The numbers may depict a gang name, area code, street or block number. For example, the Hispanic gang 18th Street Gang of California uses the number 18 from their gang’s name to mark their members. In contrast, the California Aryan Brotherhood gang uses the numbers 666 to state that they are the most evil of all gangs as the book of Revelation 13:16-18 says the numbers 666 are the mark of Satan. Numerical gangsta tattoos are more commonly used by street gangs rather than prison gangs.
Symbolic Gangsta Tattoos
Gangs often identify themselves using elements of a particular picture or symbol within a tattoo. These symbolic gangsta tattoos are popular choices because they provide a more discreet affiliation to a gang helping to hide gang involvement from law enforcement. They do not include distinct images, just key elements of a gang’s name or sign. For example, members of the Nuestra Familia gang can often be found sporting tattoos of a sombrero stabbed by a machete with dripping blood. Some gangs may have a number of different tattoos associated with them likethe Black Gangster Disciples. This gang has been known to wear a six-pointed star, a pitchfork, flames, horns, a Playboy bunny with a bent ear, and a heart with wings. Members may decide to have a single tattoo or all of the tattoos associated with their gang to show their devotion and loyalty.
Prison tattoos are applied quite differently than those inked in the outside world. Inmates obviously do not have access to the equipment available in professional tattoo parlors. Inmates often only have black or blue ink available and the “artist” may not have a great deal of experience. Inmates in prison may choose a clock without hands or an hourglass to represent the time they are serving. A tattoo including both a laughing face and one crying face can be interpreted as “play now and pay later.” Often times an inmate may choose a design of a female face that is crying to indicate they have someone waiting for them on the outside while tattoos of locks and chains symbolize their loss of freedom. Some prisoners choose to bare a string of numbers reflecting their inmate identification number.
R.I.P. Gangsta Tattoos
A Rest In Peace (aka “R.I.P.”) gangsta tattoo is often a popular choice among gang members as a way to remember friends and loved ones they lost through violence. It is a permanent way to pay tribute to them. These tattoo designs can be drawn in a variety of ways featuring names or nicknames, birth and/or death dates, portraits, or other symbolic elements such as tombstones or heavenly clouds.
Celebrities with Gangsta Style Tattoos
TUPAC / Rapper: Tattoo of words “Thug Life” written across his chest as well as various outer gangsta style tattoos
LIL WAYNE / Rapper: Three teardrop tattoos under his eyes
PAUL WALL / Rapper: Tattoo of the word "Freedom" on his left forearm
50 CENT / Rapper: Tattoo of the words "South Side" on his upper back
EMINEM / Rapper: Tattoos of remembrance of the word "Proof" dedicated to his friend who was shot on April 11, 2006 and also "Ronnie R.I.P." for his uncle Ronnie who committed suicide in 1991