Prisons around the world are filled with inmates bearing all sorts of ornate and cryptic tattoos. While these designs may look random and confusing to us, oftentimes they have very specific meanings. Here now is your cheat sheet for deciphering some of the most common tattoos in the correctional system.
We'll begin with the most ubiquitous tattoo in all of prison lore: the teardrop. While it has a few different interpretations to wearers on the outside, when you're inside a cell, it has one understood meaning: this inmate has killed someone. Stay away.
If you come across a prisoner wearing a teardrop tattoo that has not been filled in, it signifies a job that remains incomplete. That is, they attempted to murder someone (and were not successful), or they are seeking revenge and plan to fill it in when completed.
Just to be safe, you'd probably want to avoid getting on this person's bad side.
In Russian prison circles, when someone has eyes on their lower stomach, it symbolizes one thing: the wearer is a homosexual. Think of it like a cute little face with a floppy nose and you'll understand why.
This is a very discrete tattoo and, as such, you might have come across somebody wearing it and never even noticed. Many criminals, either while inside the pen or after they're released, choose to get tattoos of five dots on their hands.
This common motif symbolizes that the wearer has spent at least some time in jail during their life. The four dots on the outside represent the walls of the prison, while the dot on the inside represents the inmate.
And you thought that guy you met at the beach was just a Yahtzee lover...
If you come across someone behind bars donning a shamrock and/or an "AB" logo, steer clear of them. Those are the symbols of the Aryan Brotherhood, the prison system's most notorious white supremacist gang.
According to the LA Weekly, "In a 1992 study from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Brotherhood constituted less than one-tenth of a percent of the inmate population in the federal system ”” yet they were responsible for 18 percent of all its homicides."
Suddenly that St. Patrick's Day tattoo you got in college doesn't seem like the best idea anymore, huh?
We've probably all come across somebody with spider webs or cobwebs inked onto their elbows. This, again, is a very common tattoo, and it means that the person has spent at least some time in a correctional facility. The larger the web, the longer the sentence.
Don't be too freaked out if you find someone with a spider web design, though. There might also be a chance that they're just a huge No Doubt fan.
In Russian prisons, a dagger across the shoulders and through the neck is one of the most infamous tattoos in the entire culture. It signifies that the wearer has killed someone in prison and is available for hire. For that matter, it probably also signifies that the guards should keep an extra close eye on this fellow.
1488 is another well-known design worn by Nazi and white supremacist inmates.
The "14" refers to the "fourteen word" slogan: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children." The "88" refers to the "88 Precepts," a manifesto written by fellow white supremacist David Lane while he was serving a life sentence.
While barbed wire tattoos mean something very specific to most people ("The owner of this tat was a drunk frat boy in 2002"), while inside jail they mean something else entirely.
When worn on the arm, each barb on the wire represents a year on that prisoner's sentence. However, when seen on the forehead (such as in the image above) the tattoo means that the prisoner is currently serving a life sentence.
When adorned across a person's knuckles, the letters "EWMN" stand for the words, "Evil, Wicked, Mean, Nasty." That way, as they're in the process of punching you in the face, you can have a fraction of a second's worth of notice that "Hey, maybe this isn't such a nice guy."
Finally, when you come across a prisoner in Asia or Russia who bears a rose with thorns design, that means that the wearer spent his 18th birthday while in prison. So, it might be a good idea to buy them a cake to cheer them up.