27 Best Prison Tattoo Designs With Meanings

Learn the stories behind these tattoo designs and understand their significance.

Reviewed by Terisa Green, Tattoo Researcher
Written by Nisha Baghadia, MA (Mass Communication)
Edited by Madhumati Chowdhury, MA (English Literature)
Fact-checked by Joyce Joyson, MA (Mass Communication & Journalism)  • 

People with prison tattoo designs are typically spotted everywhere. Prevalent among the prison inmates, these jailhouse tattoos are much loved outside the bars as they hold strong narratives. They tell endless stories about the prisoners.

Expressing the prisoners’ extent of crimes, gang-based affiliations, disregard for authority, personal attributes, and the time spent by the prisoner behind the bars are what these jail tattoos do best. These tattoos are made with rough equipment, for instance, ballpoint pens, staples, paper clips, styrofoam, molten rubber, rudimentary needles, and much other similar paraphernalia, which makes it a unique form of art that can be termed as penitentiary art or incarcerated art. As a result, their tattoos appear rough, unlike their professional and neat counterparts.

But that does not stop the designs from being famous. Their solid and deep narratives compensate for the look of these inmate tattoos. Here are some such designs worth looking at.

Best Prison Tattoo Designs with Meanings

1. The Aryan Brotherhood

Image: Instagram

The Aryan Brotherhood (AB) is essentially a gang of Caucasian males who believe in the neo-Nazi ideology. They consider Hitler to be their hero and firmly espouse the cause of white supremacy. The Aryan brotherhood tattoo meanings are quite symbolic. They either consist of a swastika, ‘AB’ written in a gothic font, a Celtic knot, or the number 1488.

However, before you consider donning these cool prison tattoos, you need to remember that they have the capability of turning you into an easily identifiable prey for a number of Mexican and African-American gangs.

2. Teardrop Tattoos

Image: Instagram

Teardrop tattoos are one of the most common types of prison tattoos worn by a plethora of inmates around the world. They are portrayed as a small drop of tear that usually appears to be falling from the eye. The meaning of this widely recognized tattoo varies from one place to another.

In some prisons, a teardrop tattoo can simply imply that a person has lost a loved one, while in other prisons, it can be interpreted as a symbol of long-standing revenge. Additionally, a teardrop tattoo can also depict a murder conviction, a lengthy sentence, or a personal loss.

Although the meaning of the teardrop tattoo is highly individualistic and related to the particular histories of their wearers, the number of tears can refer to – the number of loved ones lost, the number of murders committed, or the number of years served.

protip_icon Quick Tip
There is written evidence for teardrop tattoo design, which came in the 1970s.

3. Prison Gun Tattoos

Image: Instagram @breakkytime

Guns have largely come to be associated with the commission of heinous crimes, especially in America. As weapons, guns are dangerous, risky, and tough to handle. This unpredictability generates a sense of fascination, mystery, and charm, which has turned guns into popular prison tattoo choices.

Gun tattoos range from pistols and Sig Sauers to semi-automatics and rifles. Each one can be given a different look, and its meaning can depend on the convict’s personal history.

4. Blood Gang Tattoos

Image: Instagram @818inknz

Various contemporary gangs tend to have their own identification marks. These marks don’t just reflect their ideology but also bind the members of that gang with a common thread. The Blood Gang – originating from the West Piru Street in Los Angeles (US) – has developed a similar tattooing culture.

The gang tattoos that their members adorn, generally consist of the alphabets MOB (Members Of Blood), the cipher 13/13, or the letters OYBBQ (which stands for ‘blood’). These tattoos can be worn on any part of the body, but they are usually done on the forearm.

5. Russian Prison Tattoos

Image: Instagram

Since the early 20th century, Russian prison tattoos have been popular in various parts of the world. These tattoos, which were initially used for branding prisoners, steadily transformed into an indicator of aggression and vigor.

People with Russian prison tattoos are generally respected and feared in various cultures. These tattoo designs traditionally range from barbed wires, chest crosses, and eight-pointed stars to Lenin’s images, one-eyed eagles, and spider webs.

6. Prison Break Tattoos

Image: Instagram @prisonbreaktattoos

Attempting to break out of prison is considered to be an act of extreme bravery and defiance. However, prison break tattoo has absolutely nothing to do with convicts escaping prison. Instead, these tattoos originate from a highly popular TV series titled Prison Break!

In the show, the protagonist inks the prison’s blueprint on his body so that he can design a route to break out. Most prison break tattoos carry images, signs, and symbols from this widely loved series.

7. Black Guerrilla Family Tattoos

Image: Instagram @guerrillatattooparlour

Black guerrilla family tattoos originated as an emblem of solidarity during the 1966 Civil Rights Movement. This was a time when the African-American citizens of the United States were fighting for equal rights and justice.

A variety of organizations, like the Black Liberation Army, the United Blood Nation, and the Black Vanguard, came out in support of this movement and began to sport tattoos that symbolized their ideology. The black guerrilla group normally wears tattoos that have the number 276 inscribed within them.

8. Mexican Mafia Tattoos

Image: Instagram @tattooswin

The Mexican mafia is mainly active in California. This mafia is divided into two groups – the Surenos and the Nortenos – with each of them sporting a distinctive tattoo design.

The Surenos, for instance, wear tattoos that have the number 13 in Roman or Aztec numerals carved in them. On the other hand, the Nortenos wear tattoos that have the number 14 etched out in Arabic. The tattoos adorned by both of these groups also incorporate the initials MS and tres puntos (three dots).

9. Gang Tattoos

Image: Instagram

Most prisons across the world are run by a multitude of gangs. These gangs consist of hardened convicts who wear similar tattoos so that their loyalty and affiliation remain unquestioned.

Sporting these gang tattoos is essentially their way of ensuring survival and availing special privileges within the confines of a prison. Although different prison gangs wear different sets of tattoos, most of them are usually centered around a certain number, a specific image, or the infinity symbol.

10. Prison Face Tattoos

Image: Instagram @maybeyesmaybenomag

Like the name suggests, prison face tattoos are done on the face. They generally denote how hardcore a criminal is. The greater the number of tattoos on their face, the more the number of crimes they have committed.

Nonetheless, some inmates use prison face tattoos to showcase their identity or simply make a point. The designs of such tattoos largely range from skulls, teardrops, and crowns to names, totems, and numbers.

11. Playing Cards Tattoos

Image: Instagram @tattoosbykittencreep

Playing cards tattoos, which originated from Russian prisons, have currently secured a space among the best prison tattoos in the world. For most inmates, a playing card tattoo symbolizes how their lives have been turned into a gamble and each passing day is dealing them a bad hand.

The prisoners are free to choose from any of the 52 cards of a standard deck. The specific card that they choose is often associated with how they see themselves, their criminal history, and their prospective future.

12. Black Gang Tattoos

Image: Instagram @blackgangtattoo

Black gang tattoos are normally worn by members of the African-American community. These tattoos act as a symbol of unity and integration. Black gang tattoos also provide people of color with sufficient motivation to fight for their cause.

Even though most of these tattoos differ from one prison to another, they are inextricably linked by common figures, like chains, area codes, locks, keys, wild animals, guns, weapons, artillery, and knives. These tattoos function as a medium of communal identification and cohesion.

13. Racist Tattoos

Image: Instagram

At various points of time in the history of the world, racism has been the dominant narrative. From the shores of America and the cities of Europe to the deserts of Africa and the jungles of Asia – racist art has adapted to the cultures of different geographies.

This is why the racist prison tattoos today feature a plethora of designs like Celtic crosses and runic alphabets. These may either symbolize the neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan or a white supremacist ideology.

14. American Prison Tattoos

Image: Instagram @salutmanu_tattoo

American prison tattoos are comprised of numerous assorted designs and diverse styles. These tattoos are a reflection of the prisoner’s individual story and life history.

American prison tattoos also include the extensive body of art that has been developed by Native American gangs. These tattoos are marked by unique and indigenous designs, which include symbols that Native Americans hold sacred, like reptiles, birds, animals, and tribal wear.

15. Prison Wrists Tattoos

Image: Instagram @sonickcrew

Wrist tattoos are a set of cool prison tattoos that are generally worn by inmates on their wrists. They may either narrate a story of the prisoner’s conviction, mention his total jail time, or carry a symbol that they identify with.

In fact, prison gangs often brand their members on the wrist. These tattoos include a wide range of artwork, such as a clock with no hands, a four-pointed star, a swastika, a hanging man, or a few dots.

16. Jail Time Tattoos

Jail time tattoo design
Image: Instagram @tatuaggidelcane_

Convicts are mostly sentenced in accordance with the gravity of their crimes. If they have committed a felony, for example, their jail time would be a minimum of 1 year. However, if they have committed first-degree murder, their jail time could range from 15 years to life imprisonment.

Some inmates, especially the ones who are sentenced for the long haul, literally wear their jail time on their sleeve as a tattoo! These prison tattoos are chiefly crafted as numbers in Roman, Latin, Arabic, or English numerals and feature cell block designs as a way to represent their imprisonment.

17. Prison Cobweb Tattoos

Image: Instagram @westlondoninktattoos

Largely considered to be one of the best prison tattoos, cobweb tattoos are essentially a representation of lengthy prison sentences. Inmates who are sentenced to a long time in jail get cobwebs tattooed on their elbows or neck.

The web indicates that just like the spider catches its prey, they too have been caught and chained by the system. If you get this tattoo, make sure that your tattoo artist does not use bright colors. Instead, just stick to black and white to retain its authenticity as prison body art.

18. Five-Point Crown Tattoos

Image: Instagram

The five-point crown tattoo is unarguably the most famous body art in both North and South America. Thisprison tattoo is an integral part of Hispanic culture and is normally worn by the members of the Latin Kings gang. Sporting this tattoo enhances your rank and influence in the Latin society. immediately.

A five-point crown is indicative of loyalty, allegiance, and protection. It is mainly done on the neck, but some gang members also shave their heads and use their scalp as a canvas for this tattoo.

19. Three Dots Prison Tattoos

Image: Instagram @jiwlyscum

Three dots tattoos are a distinctive type of prison tattoo that can be interpreted in numerous ways. For one, this symbol is closely associated with the Mexican mafia and may be considered a mark of identification for the LA-based Surenos gang.

On the other hand, this tattoo may simply represent the Spanish concept of mi vida loca or “my crazy life.” At times, three dots are also said to be an indicator of pure religious belief as they may symbolize the Christian holy trinity.

protip_icon Quick Tip
The three-dot tattoo design is typically found around the eyes or on the hands.

20. EWMN Prison Tattoos

Image: Instagram @laurajohannakatariina

EWMN is an acronym for “evil, wicked, mean and nasty.” By donning such criminal tattoos, convicts try to own their crime. In other words, they wear their presumed character on their bodies to strengthen people’s beliefs about them.

Apart from EWMN, any other abbreviation can also be used for the same purpose. These prison tattoos are mostly done on a prisoner’s knuckles.

21. Crown And Rings Tattoos

Image: Instagram @jaws__001

Tracing its roots to 17th century Ireland, a crown and rings tattoo (also called a crown ring tattoo), is basically a modification of the traditional Claddagh ring. In prison, it is either worn by members of the same gang or a group of inmates who have developed a close-knit bond.

This prison tattoo represents loyalty (crown), love (heart), and friendship (hands). It is usually done on the ring finger, though any other finger can also be used to portray a crown ring tattoo.

22. Scary Prison Tattoos

Image: Instagram

Although prison tattoosmay adopt different forms, many of them tend to get a little scary. A skull, for example, can give off a terribly dangerous look when worn on the forehead.

Similarly, an “eye for an eye” tattoo is done by shadowing the eye from all corners to lend it a spine-chilling look. Some inmates even cover their entire faces with tattoo ink just so that they can appear formidable, fearsome, and diabolical.

23. Cool Prison Tattoos

Image: Instagram @travstattoos

A number of prison tattoos are actually a treasure trove of beautiful and unusual forms of convict art. They transcend the barriers of language, culture, geographies, and countries to produce cool prison tattoos that are meaningful and eloquent.

These designs include wonderful features like Gott Mitt Uns (God be with us), roses, years, hearts, eyes, and instruments of historical significance.

24. Old-School Prison Tattoos

Image: Instagram @tamer_tattooer

A number of tattoo designs have cropped up in recent times, but the charm ofold-school prison tattoosremains intact. These tattoos, which belong to the vintage era, are generally a reflection of the convict’s choice of time.

For instance, if a prisoner is wearing a swastika, it signifies that he supports the Nazi cause from the 1930s. Similarly, if he is wearing a closed fist, it means that he believes in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

25. Irish Prison Tattoos

Image: Instagram @mollylts

Prison ink in Ireland is quite well-known for its simplicity and relevance. Their common designs bind prisoners throughout the country into a singular chain.

These tattoos normally include uncomplicated designs like shamrock flowers, leaf clovers, and four dots. These symbols are said to symbolize good luck, prosperity, and happiness.

26. 3D Prison Tattoos

Image: Instagram

In some prisons, 3D prison tattoos are extensively used by fusing two different pictures together. This lends an additional dimension to a normal tattoo!

3D tattoos focus on a person’s stereoscopic vision, thus enhancing their depth of perception. For example, you can fuse the image of Lenin with an eight-pointed star to lend it a 3D effect.

27. Tribal Prison Tattoos

Image: Instagram @tattooflashcollective

The prison tattoo designs that carry tribal symbology have been an object of fascination for prisoners around the world. Not only are these tattoos highly artistic, but they also are a great cultural and ritualistic expression.

They usually make use of Aztec art, Apache totems, Inca symbols, or Mapuche patterns. Tribal tattoos vary geographically, regionally, and racially. Sporting them implies that a convict belongs to or identifies with a specific tribe.

Infographic: 8 Prison Tattoo Designs And Their Meanings

Prison tattoos are a symbol of the complex history of someone who has seen life bars. They usually narrate the stories of prison inmates, the crimes they have committed, and gang names, but they can also be about their personal struggles or family life. Check out the infographic below to find out more about the most popular prison tattoo designs.

8 prison tattoo designs and their meanings (infographic)

Illustration: StyleCraze Design Team

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Download Infographic in PDF version

Prison tattoo designs tell stories of prisoners. They represent strong narratives about crimes, gang-based affiliations, personal attributes, rebellion, and disregard for authority. These tattoos are different from their professional counterparts as they are made with rough equipment, unlike professional tools. Several designs represent the prisoner’s life, brotherhood, crimes, prison break, etc. We have listed several cool and stunning prison tattoo designs to inspire you and help you know about their meaning. Knowing about these tattoos may help you choose the one that does not cause you any trouble.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does a prison star tattoo mean?

A prison star tattoo can mean different things for different people. While it may indicate hope, ambition and success for some, it can have religious (Jews), professional (fishermen), or nationalist (Navy) significance for others. However, in all cases, it portrays a sense of individuality and uniqueness.

What does a shamrock tattoo mean in prison?

In American prisons, the three-leaved clover or shamrock tattoo is usually worn by the members of the Aryan Brotherhood. It symbolizes their neo-Nazi ideology coupled with their idea of white supremacy. Nonetheless, in Irish prisons, it simply stands for the trio of hope, faith, and love.

What does a scorpion tattoo mean in prison?

A scorpion tattoo in prison depicts fear and intimidation. The convict who wears it considers himself to be as diabolical as the grim reaper. Sporting a scorpion, therefore, represents his strength, loyalty, and power.

What does a swallow prison tattoo mean?

A swallow prison tattoo is usually done when one is done serving jail time, symbolizing freedom.

What does a diamond tattoo mean in prison?

The diamond tattoo, specifically a suite of diamonds on playing cards, popular in Russian prisons symbolizes stool pigeons and informants. It is likely that this tattoo was done by force to mark informants.

Discover the intriguing meaning behind the crescent ring prison tattoo in Russia. This informative video explores the symbolism and cultural significance of this uniquely symbolic body art. Check it out!
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