There are lots of reasons around 90% of prison inmates have tattoos, but survival is one of them. And as a former (and very popular) prison tattoo artist, I should know.
Rule number one for surviving prison: the tougher you look, the easier your ability to choose the person you want to be while you’re inside. Be labeled or perceived as a punk, a bitch, or a weakling, and you will have your public perception on the inside chosen for you. So you can lift weights, learn to fight, practice snarling in a mirror — you can do all these things, but none of them will accomplish as much for you as getting a [good] tattoo.
I was a tattoo artist for years, even though it’s not allowed in prison. It’s the most lucrative hustle in prison that doesn’t involve drugs or body-cavities. You can make about $20 an hour, as opposed to official prison jobs that pay the equivalent of about $0.20 an hour. And I made a lot of money because I was considered one of the best tattoo artists around. But there’s a lot of risk involved, and eventually, I couldn’t justify the price you pay for getting caught (solitary, limited privileges), so I quit.
SIDE NOTE: It wasn’t always this strict. Years ago, some prison guards would pay tattoo artists with contraband (drugs, phones) in exchange for getting a “souvenir” prison tattoo done with ink made from soot and soapy-water, with a tattoo gun made from a small pilfered motor combined with a ballpoint pen and a sharpened spring.
TATTOOS COMMON TO ALL PRISONERS:
So what are the most common prison tattoos? While it often depends on race, or where an inmate is from and or what message they want to send, there are some common themes seen across all groups.
For instance, the phrases “DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR” and “ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME” are two of the most common prison tattoos, while lettering in the “Old English” style is a particular favorite, though more flowing scripts are also popular.
One of the most common themes in tattoos with a prison theme are those that symbolize the length of one’s sentence — a memento mori signifying what all prisoners fear most: lost time. Broken clocks, melting clocks, springs falling out of clocks. Salvador Dali-esque tattoos with drops of blood dripping down from the clock’s body. A calendar with the pages ripped away or the days crossed off. Clocks with the hands pointing to the number of years in one’s sentence, or a clock modified with numbers that go higher than 12, for longer sentence. (For example, my friend B has a clock that goes up to 14, the total number of years he has to serve.)
Often the prison bars are seen inside the silhouette of the state they’re in. From New York to Michigan to California, the boundary of the state filled with bars covers necks and arms of incarcerated, and formerly-incarcerated, men everywhere. And while tattoos of barbed-wire have become part of popular culture on the outside, a tattoo of razor-wire pretty much guarantees that someone has done time.
The theme of street tattoos relates to the struggle and hustle that comes with growing up in an urban environment. The majority of prisoners come from poverty-stricken urban environments, and the tattoos they come in with or get while incarcerated reflect this mentality and lifestyle. One of the most popular requests is for tattoos related to their hometown, so here in Michigan, you see the word “Detroit” a lot, or just the letter “D.” You’ll also see city skylines, and street-signs — or a tattoo that depicts the part of the city they came from (i.e. “East Side”).
Some street tattoos come from modern rap, particularly gangster-rap. When I was tattooing, the tattoo most requested was the letters “M.O.B.” — which stands for ‘Money Over B*tches’ — considered a hustler’s words to live by. Another popular acronym, made famous by the Wu Tang Clan [a popular hip hop group in the 90s] is “C.R.E.A.M.” (‘Cash Rules Everything Around Me’).
Tupac’s “Thug Life” is usually visible on a hot day on the torsos of at least a dozen guys on any prison yard, as well as the word “Goon.”
The tattoos that go with this lifestyle are images of guns, particularly pistols and AK-47s. A really common tattoo with this theme is two pistols near the belly-button, placed so that they look like they’re tucked into the person’s waistband. One concept that I have seen on probably a hundred people is the silhouette of two AK-47s, crossed as though forming a royal crest or seal. Same with the image of a masked man holding out a pistol.
Regardless of race, a common prison gangster tattoo is a teardrop tattoo on the face. This tattoo has become such a common image in popular culture that, whatever its original intent, it has lost most overall meaning. It once meant that you killed someone if it was solid and on one side of the face, or that you lost someone you loved if on the other. Today people who have never led a gangster-lifestyle and who have never killed anyone have teardrops, and it has lost most of its significance. True, original gangsters still have it because it is as permanent as, well, a tattoo, but it is not NECESSARILY symbolic of anything on a new generation of inmates.
TATTOOS BY RACE or GROUP
Prison is a very racist place, and lines are too often drawn across racial lines and ethnic groups. In an environment where everyone is forced to wear the same uniform, identity tends to be displayed by skin-color… and by tattoos.
SIDE NOTE: There are, as with anything, exceptions: I know a number of white Bloods and Crips, and I’ve met three separate black inmates with swastikas tattooed prominently on them, but I will cover the very most common tattoos exhibited by these different groups, because they are purposely worn with pride in this way in prison.
The Black Panther’s image of a raised fist with the words “Black Power” are extremely common, even today. The same is true with tattoos related to Africa, such as the silhouette of the entire continent or Egyptian images, such as the ancient Egyptian pharaoh’s headdress and pyramids. Also common, symbols of Islam like the crescent moon and star.
Latino inmate tattoos often focus on their heritage and are commonly cultural. Images abound of senoritas, particularly wearing sombreros (and often little else), sometimes with guns. Similarly, rebel aspects of Latino culture are popular, like images of mustached men wearing sunglasses and hats, often with the revolvers and the words “Vato Loco” (crazy gangster). Also popular: Aztec and Mayan iconography, Aztec warriors, Mayan step-pyramids and tattoos of the words “Brown Pride.”
Those images are not gang-related, but are often incorporated by Latino gangs, to which other specific symbols are also added. Members of the Mexican Mafia often use these images along with the initials “M.M.” Other Latino gangs are well-known by their symbols and directly by their initials and names.
White inmates often want skulls and snakes and daggers, or words from the Bible or a song. When it comes to guns, whites more commonly get pistols and hunting-rifles, shotguns, and AR-15s.
Most tattoos that are completely unique to whites are gang-related, or at least white supremacist-related. Probably the only one that isn’t necessarily intended as either (say whatever you want of ignorance) is the Confederate flag, worn by a number of white inmates who don’t openly intend any racist connotations to it. In prison, this image has a broader history of representing a redneck, rebel, and the country spirit… though it is often worn by those who are openly racist as well. A lot of white inmates also get “White Pride” tattoos, considered less prejudiced than a “White Power” tattoo.
On a similar note, a religion similar to Wicca, often practiced innocently on the outside, has been co-opted in prison to commonly represent racist ideology and unity amongst white inmates: Asatru, Odinism, or “Norse.” The religion of the Vikings (along with Viking imagery), it is a pagan belief in Thor, Odin, and other Norse gods that tends to focus on a specifically WHITE warrior mindset, as they are specifically gods of those of European ancestry. These images – Thor’s Hammer, Viking warriors, the “Valknut” – don’t automatically classify someone as a member of a white prison gang and are common on white inmates all over, but very often, they show a desire to be affiliated with a white-supremecist mentality.
Guaranteed-racist are the specific numbers “14” [referring to the “14 words,” a reference to the popular white supremacist slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The number “88” is also popular, with the number 8 representing the eighth letter of the alphabet, “H” with “H.H.” meaning “Heil Hitler”].
Another non-ambiguous example is the swastika, be it a three-armed swastika or a five-armed one. But having a swastika tattoo can get you classified as a Security Threat Group by the prison system, a designation that limits your privileges and freedom. So many inmates with swastikas later choose to extend the arms of the swastika to form a box with an “X” in it — called a “windowpane.” If you see this symbol on someone, I can pretty much guarantee that it used to be a swastika.
Gangs have their own particular code of images, and to survive in prison it helps to learn to read them. Even my 94-year old grandmother knows that Bloods sport the color red, and Crips the color blue.
[Personal Note: Years ago when I used to tattoo, I would work on anyone of any race, though as a personal choice I made it clear that I never tattoo gang-related images/symbols. All I needed in my life was to have another gang pissed at me for being the “other side’s” tattoo artist]
BLOODS: A five-pointed star is the chief symbol of the Bloods, and most Bloods have one. The number 5 is such an important identifier of the gang that sometimes just the word “Five” itself is tattooed. The Vice Lords (VL’s) are a gang under “the Five” and use a five-point star as well, as do certain other gangs.
CRIPS: The Crips represent themselves with a six-point star, more commonly known elsewhere as the Star of Israel. In prison, it is the main signifier of one of the largest street gangs there is. The number 6 or the word “Six,” as well as a three-pronged trident, are the emblems of the Crips, the Gangster Disciples (GD’s), along with a few somewhat-affiliated gangs.
See a crown tattooed on an inmate? Count the number of points on it… if the prisoner is a member of a gang, this will tell you which group he is affiliated with. Crown tattoos are considered a “strike” against you and can lead to being classified as a gang member, a “Security Threat Group,” and reduced privileges. Still, whether Bloods, Lords, Crips, or Gs, these are some of the most common tattoos in prison.
ARYAN BROTHERHOOD: Perhaps the largest, and probably the most well-known, white prison gang is the Aryan Brotherhood, who claim the three-leaf clover (particularly with the numbers 666 in it) as theirs. Other tattoos related to the gang usually revolve around their name/initials: “A.B.,” “Ace-Deuce” (“Ace” referring to the letter A; “Deuce” referring to the second letter of the alphabet, B) and the two playing cards of an ace and a 2. Whatever the specific gang, these are more-often-than-not combined with Viking/Norse images.
The Nazi SS “lightning bolts” is generally restricted to a “made-man” in a white-supremacist gang, one who has proven to be a ride-or-die member and/or specifically one who has killed a member of another race. Skinheads, and particularly the Hammerskins, use these images in combinations, often along with the word “Skin,” “Hammer” or “Hammerskin.”
M-13 and LATIN GANGS: MS-13 members commonly have the name of their gang tattooed on them, the words “Mara Salvatrucha” and/or just the number 13 or the gang’s hand sign — which is similar to the rock-and-roll “devil-horn” hand sign. Latin Kings are one of the largest Latino gangs in the US and, like the Bloods and VLs, are also represented in part by a five-point star, and very often a five-pointed crown. Tattoos of the initials LK, or ALKQN (Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation), or of a robed king wearing a five-point crown and holding the world are pretty clear identifiers. Latin Counts usually have the word “Count” on them. Tattoos of a cobra on a non-black inmate (where it may mean something different) usually represent another gang, the Spanish Cobras.
* * *
Now that surveillance cameras have been installed all around the prison, it’s getting harder for tattoo artists to practice their trade. My cellmate, a guy named “T” — is still reeling from the last time he was caught. It started when one of our local snitches told the C.O.s (prison guards) what T was doing — because the snitch didn’t like that T was using one of the bathroom stalls for a couple hours a day as his place of business.
T always used a lookout to give him a “cough, cough COUGH, COUGH!” whenever the police were coming, so that T had enough time to drop the tattoo equipment into the toilet and walk out unnoticed.
But this time, the guards barged into the communal bathroom and, seeing the two prisoners sharing a stall together, asked them what they were doing. When they said they weren’t doing anything, the officers said they had two options. They could either cop to having sex with each other — or admit they were tattooing. And the guards weren’t going anywhere until they had their answer.
T — who has an elaborate tattoo of Heaven and Hell from his chest to his waist that he did on himself — made a quick decision of what he’d rather be known for, then responded, “Officer, I was tattooing! I swear to God!” The customer agreed and lifted his shirt to show the still-bleeding artwork.– but the admission meant the C.O.s took them both to the Hole (solitary) for “Possession of Dangerous Contraband.”
Later, T told me that he was just glad the C.O.s o didn’t barge in the week before when T was “tattooing the top of another guy’s head, who was kneeling on his knees in front of me so I could do it…”
Chris Dankovich is serving 25-37 years in Michigan for murdering his mother when he was 15 years old.
Chris Dankovich #595904
Thumb Corr Facility
3225 John Conley Dr
Lapeer, MI 48446