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Prison Tattoos Tell a Story

by David M. Reutter

Tattoos are virtually a rite of prison passage, and the designs, where they are placed and what they signify often have more meaning than just self-expressive body ink.

Once considered taboo, tattoos have gained wider acceptance in today’s society, especially among the younger generation. About 23% of people sport a tattoo, though the rate among prisoners is typically much higher. Of Florida’s approximately 100,000 prisoners, nearly 75,000 have a total of 300,000 tattoos.

Florida’s prison system was the subject of two recently-published articles about tattoos because the Department of Corrections’ prisoner database lists tattoos by type and location.

A 2010 study found that prison tattoos reflect the criminal lifestyle; the study made a distinction between prison and non-prison tattoos, with prison tattoos being those obtained while incarcerated or that had images reflecting prison life such as clocks, spider webs, prison bars or gang-related symbols. The study included Texas prisoners and college students at Texas Tech University.

Prison tattoos were found to indicate the prisoner harbored “a greater commitment to the criminal lifestyle with an irrational perception of entitlements or sense of power.” They also “tended to blame others for their involvement in criminal activity, and minimized and rationalized the harm inflicted on other as a result of their own criminal activities.” Those with prison tattoos “should be of greatest concern to correctional staff in terms of management problems and therefore staff resources.”

While the number of tattoos a prisoner had made no difference in the study’s findings, a distinction was made for those with visible tattoos – especially on the hands, face or neck. Prisoners with visible tattoos had a greater risk of behavioral problems while incarcerated and recidivism after release.

A study by the Economist found the type of tattoo tended to correlate with the type of crime a Florida prisoner committed. Those with drug charges had a higher rate of facial tattoos, while those with white supremacist ink tended to have convictions for murder, theft or robbery. Prisoners with Christian-themed tattoos had a lower rate of murder, assault and robbery charges but were more likely to have committed theft or drug offenses. Prisoners with teardrop or gun tattoos had lower rates of theft charges.

According to, teardrop tattoos can signify that a prisoner committed murder or is serving a long prison sentence. Tattoos of three dots are usually associated with the Spanish phrase “mi vida loca” or “my crazy life,” but are not associated with any particular gang and may also have religious connotations (the Trinity). Five dots, with four in a square and one in the center, also called the quincunx, represent someone who has served time in prison. Various web pages are devoted to the meanings behind prison tattoos – including among gang members and prisoners in other countries, particularly Russia.

The Palm Beach Post found the most popular tattoos among male prisoners in Florida were crosses (28,286), followed by skulls (23,405), stars (14,390), hearts (14,227) and flames (11,184). For women, the most popular were hearts (2,711), stars (2,021), roses (1,685), flowers (1,562) and butterflies (1,323).

A number of tattoo removal services have been established to cater to the market of people, including former prisoners, who want to have their ink removed; the removal of visible tattoos, particularly those on the face and neck, can increase employment opportunities.

As recently reported in PLN, law enforcement agencies are working to create a tattoo identification program and are using prisoners’ tattoos as sample data to do so. [See: PLN, Oct. 2017, p.20]. 

Sources: The Economist, Palm Beach Post, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 

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