Skip to main content

15 Notorious Prison Tattoo And Their Hidden Meaning Explained

Shows like ‘Prison break’ and “Orange is the new black” has generated a fascination for tattoos.

These prison tattoos are no more the domain of the incarcerated members, even the regular plebeians have started using them without being aware of their significance. Here we bring you 15 of the wildly popular prison tattoos and the significant meaning behind each one of them. We found this post originally on Imgur.


A.C.A.B stands for All Cops Are Bastards. This is commonly found inked on the bodies of British prisoners. The acronym was seen by a Newcastle journalist on the walls of a prison wall in the 1970s. The 4-Skins, a British punk band popularized the acronym with their song of the same name in the 1980s. The acronym is commonly rendered one letter per finger.

Some claim that this acronym stands for Always Carry A Bible, this may be the people who may be regretting their previous lives or those who are reforming or reformed.

Cross on the Chest 

During the 20th century, there was a system of the tattoo being used to identify and differentiate a person’s criminal position and career within the Russian prison and criminal communities.

In the Russian Tattoo hierarchy, a Cross on the chest signifies a ‘Prince of Thieves’, the highest rank among the criminal community. This is usually seen adorning the higher-ups in the mob. A spider with face down suggests that the person has left his criminal past behind. Skull indicates a murderer. Stars  imply authority, if inked on shoulders or knees, it means, ‘I bow to no one’. A tattoo of an eagle represents a senior authority figure, but if the eagle is carrying something, then it denotes a rapist.

EWMN (Evil, Wicked, Mean,Nasty) 

EWMN is not a code word but stands for ‘Evil, Wicked, Mean, Nasty.’ They do not indicate any allegiance to gangs both within or outside the prison. It simply denotes a person’s disposition. The tattoo is generally inked on their knuckles.

The knuckle tattoos became popular after the release of the movie, ‘The Night of The Hunter’ in 1955. The movie featured a sociopath preacher with ‘love/hate’ tattooed on his knuckles. Criminals naturally loved it and took to inking it on themselves. Today there are several variations such as ‘rock/roll’, ‘stay/down.’

Playing Cards

Playing card tattoos are the favorites of gamblers who love to play poker. Usually playing cards or suits of the deck such as hearts, clover, spade, and diamonds are inked. This tattoo generally signifies a gambler or someone who thinks life is a gamble.

This tattoo is quite popular among the Russian prisoners where each suit of the deck holds a different meaning. A Club indicates criminal, Spade denotes a thief, Diamond is reserved for stool pigeons and informants, Usually, this is forcibly inked on the unwilling participants. A Heart is worn by someone looking for a romantic partner, usually within a prison. Again, this is sometimes forcibly inked on an unwilling participant.


MS13 are usually inked at visible areas like the neck, face, hands. Gang members of MS13 or Mara Salvatrucha usually cover their torso with this tattoo and/or with their own sign language. Sometimes they simply tattoo in an  ‘MS’ or a ’13.’

MS13 are an international criminal gang originating in Los Angeles, America. The powerful gang is spread over USA, Canada, Mexico, and Central America. The majority of the Gang members comes from El Salvadore.

The Inside

La eme is the Spanish for Mexican Mafia. Despite its name, the highly organized criminal gang did not originate in Mexico. They are US criminal prison organization. Other gangs like MS-13 and Florencia 13 use the number 13 to show their affiliation to the Mexican mafia (M is the 13th letter of the alphabet).

The gangs primary symbol of an eagle and a snake atop a flaming circle over a crossed knife is found tattooed among hardcore member’s torso. They also use the images of a black hand.


The Nortenos or northerners are loosely affiliated gang that pay tribute to the Nuestra Familia within the US Federal and State correctional facilities. Nortenos use the number 14, as it represents the 14th letter of the alphabet, the N. Sometimes it is tattooed as XIV or in a fusion of Roman and Hindu-Arabic numeral X4. Some Norteno’s will tattoo themselves with four dots.

Aryan Brotherhood 

The Aryan Brotherhood is a white supremacist prison gang that originated in 1967 in the San Quentin prison in California. The gang formed as a protective shield against the attacks of Mexican and Black inmates. They are known as Alice Baker, AB, and The Brand. According to FBI, the gang makes less than 0.1% of the prison population but are responsible for 30% of the murders in the federal system.

The Aryan Brotherhood tattoo includes the words, “Aryan Brotherhood”, “AB”,” 666″, Nazi signs like “Swastika”, “SS”, “sig runes”, Shamrocks and Celtic clover.

The Clock With No Hands

The clock with no hands is a subtle tattoo indirectly suggesting that the inmate is in for a long haul. Prison inmates who are looking at a long sentence do not want to be reminded of the passing time. They view the passage of time in a different perspective, for them, there is no meaning in counting the days or hours. So, they embed a tattoo of a clock with no hands.

The clock tattoo has several variations. They may be the face of a wall clock or a grandfather clock. They may even be a wristwatch tattoo with straps and all. Clock tattoo is quite popular, always look to see whether they have hands to ascertain the real status of the wearer.

Five Dots 

The five dots tattoo is generally found on the outer surface of the hand, between the thumb and forefinger. The five dots are sometimes known as quincunx and stands for the time done in prison. This is an international tattoo, common among European and American prisoners. The four dots on the outside symbolically mean the four walls of the prison and the dot in the center stands for the inmate.

However, five dots on other parts of the body signifies that the individual is associated with People Nation Gang (a Chicago-based gang).

Interestingly, the famous scientist Thomas Edison had this pattern tattooed on his arm.

Three Dots 

The three dots does not necessarily mean that the member is affiliated, it is a universal tattoo hinting that the member has/had a gangster lifestyle. The three dots represent “Mi Vida Loca” which means my crazy life.

It is usually found near the eyes or on the hands. This tattoo can be obtained by using the basic tool like a pencil or a sewing needle or any sharp objects. Most often inmates do it themselves using whatever sharp objects are available at that moment.

The Five-Point Crown 

The crown tattoo may look stylish and elegant on the wearer but it is a prison tattoo. The five points of the crown are the symbol of the Latin Kings gang.  The Latin Kings gang originated in 1940’s and are one of the biggest Hispanic gang both in and out of the prison. The five points in the crown indicate their affiliation towards the People Nation Gang, which is represented by number 5.

The crown tattoo is most often accompanied by the letters ALKN which means Almighty Latin Kings Nation!

Teardrop Tattoo 

Teardrop tattoo is one of the widely recognized tattoos across the world. The tattoo is placed underneath the eye. The tattoo can mean different things to different people based on their location and culture. It can mean that the wearer has killed someone or has spent time in prison. It signifies that the wearer was raped in prison or acknowledges the loss of a family or a gang member. Sometimes the teardrop is empty, suggesting an attempted murder or the wearer is seeking revenge.

US rappers The Game and Lil Wayne have teardrop tattoo mourning the loss of their friend.

The Cobweb

The spider web tattoo is a coded tattoo with multiple meanings. The spider web means that the wearer has done time (in prison). The design is most often found in the elbow. But the tattoo can be placed anywhere. The design symbolically suggests being caught by law (just like the spider that catches its prey and imprisons it).

The tattoo also stands for struggle – overcoming drug addiction, getting out of gang etc.


The number 1488 is a tattoo with layered significance. They are usually used by White supremacists. Sometimes just 14 or 88 are used. On the surface, it’s just a plain number but once you probe within, the meaning becomes clear.

The number 14 represents 14 words of David Lane to the white supremacists. David Lane had said,”We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children”. The 8 is the shorthand for the letter ‘H’ repeated twice. HH stands for ‘Heil Hitler’.