Photo of a person standing outside a tattoo shop. Photo by Ralf Scherer, Flickr CC

Tattoos can be important symbols in the underworld, but the exact meaning of these images are often a well-kept secret. Even the teardrop tattoo, considered the most popular emblem of prison culture, has contested meanings. While some consider that the tear underneath the eye symbolizes the death of a loved one, others believe that it serves as a tally of the carriers’ crimes. Beyond the actual meaning of their shapes and contours, prison tattoos serve several social functions in prison life.

Studies usually describe how prisons can strip prisoners of different parts of their ‘identity kit’. At intake to prisons, people are fingerprinted, photographed, and assigned an identification number. Penal institutions also routinely strip prisoners of their possessions, clothes, and cultural signifiers in a forced process of personal defacement. To neutralize this process, prisoners gradually acquire a ‘prison identity’. Tattoos enable prisoners to consolidate their self-perception, embrace a new identity, and announce their commitment to ‘convict’ status.
Prison scholars argue that prison subcultures endow status and prestige among peers, and strengthen prisoners’ sentiments of loyalty to the prison world. According to David Skarbek, formal and informal norms are effective in securing prison order. However, when a community becomes larger or more diverse, inmates often start organizing around prison gangs. These groups are forms of brotherhood or comradeship that provide information, safety, and a deeper sense of belonging. Tattoos provide gangs with a coded language that serve as an informal mechanism of communication, but also as a way of differentiation against outsiders. Through the visual display of a tattoo, prisoners convey their status, rank, accomplishments, and their allegiance to a specific organization.