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Tattoos first appeared on a man from 4,000 B.C. in Austria in a frozen glacier.  His remains showed evidence of tattooing on his body.  From then on, tattooing has been a major part of human life.  Tattooing did not appear as a widely used ritual until a few thousand years ago. It has been said that ancient Egyptians used tattoos.  The ancient Romans used tattoos as a way to identify slaves.  The ancient Japanese, and Mediterranean’s tattooed their criminals, often by using different symbols to identify what crime they committed.  For many hundreds of years several cultures across the world used tattooing as a way to identify a certain people.  Some cultures used them to show who they were as a people, while others used them to outcast members of society such criminals or slaves.  Bottom line is that tattooing brought cultures and subcultures together and set them apart as well by using these distinct markings.  Tattooing is a permanent left on the body that cannot be erased.  This is why tattooing was made as a cultural symbol of showing permanent loyalty.  When a person of a certain culture gets their tattoo it symbolizes their permanent devotion to that group that they belong to.  They used the tattoo to convey a message to others that they were proud of who they were or whom they believed in and were willing to die for it. 


The other use of the tattoo was quite different with those that were condemned as criminals.  Ancient or even some more modern societies would tattoo their criminals in order to set them apart from the non-tattooed people of society.  This was how tattooing developed it’s darker side as it made it’s way into the criminal world. As several inmates in prisons were tattooed or branded, they soon would discover that they had a common ground, they were all criminals with the same mark on their bodies and were ousted by the rest of society.  Eventually some of the inmates would begin to form bonds and gangs based upon their criminal status, and the tattoo was their symbol that identified members of the underworld.  As years would pass, the gang tattoos would be altered in order for them to break off into separate gangs once tattooing was no longer used for prisoners in most countries.  By about the 19th century tattooing became strictly a prisoner, gang member, or criminal trait in most non-third world countries.


A permanent mark put on the body became a sign of loyalty to an organization, and because that tattoo is permanent, it symbolizes that the loyalty to the gang is permanently important.  In earlier gangs, gang members would have the same exact symbol tattooed on them as opposed to more modern day gangs that will tend to tattoo their own interpretation of the gang’s symbols.  The need to artfully redesign the gang’s tattoo shows that more modern day gang members want to fell a sense of individuality while still pledging utmost loyalty to the organization.  The gang tattoo has now become a walking mural that attracts people’s interest that are not in the gang.  The different styles of tattoo can indirectly inform the public that, that gang member is showing that he/she is a part of the gang but still has their own interests.  This also shows a break away of traditional same tattoo gangs that prevailed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 


 Branding is a crude, primitive, and painful way of leaving a permanent mark on a living being.  For many years farmers have branded their livestock in order to symbolize ownership of that livestock.  In many ancient cultures, prisoners were branded in order to painfully install in that prisoners head that they did wrong, then they had to move about in society with that brand to permanently remind themselves and others about the wrong they have done.  Branding was later adopted by gangs as ritual that painfully brought a member into the gang.  The gang member would have to undergo the searing pain of hot metal against their skin in order to leave that permanent mark on their bodies.  The willingness to go through that intense pain and then to wear that mark on that body for life was heavily praised by gangs.  Sometimes gangs would poor salt or alcohol over the fresh brand in order to enhance the pain of the process.  Enduring the enhanced pain has been seen as showing masculinity, which is a trait that male gang members appreciate.  Female gang members have also adapted to these same rituals to show their toughness as well.  



The size of the tattoo, how many tattoos and where the tattoo is located on the body of a gang member has quite a bit of significance.  Many times when a gang member has a very visible tattoo (Ex. On the face or neck) it conveys a message that the gang member wants everyone to see the markings and does not care what others think about it.  They have opted to tattoo themselves on the most looked at part of the human body.  The gang member that has these tattoos often is not afraid of rival gang members becoming offended.  The gang member often will know the consequences of having a neck or face tattoo when they seek employment etc… but the need to show loyalty to the gang far outweighs those consequences.  Extra large tattoos are often a symbol of extra loyalty and devotion to the gang.  The gang member wants people to clearly see that he/she is in that gang when they take off their shirt, or when their head is shaven, the symbol can be seen covering the scalp.  Several smaller gang tattoos all over the body are also a symbol of harder devotion.  These gang members want variety of interpretations of their gang’s symbols all over their bodies.  Many of times gang members will have one or two small tattoos located in areas on the body that are not very visible (Ex. Ankle tattoo). In some cases this can show an insecure attachment to the gang, or they want to have the marking but do not want to display the tattoo in order to avoid constant conflict.  Of course there are several gang members out there that have hidden tattoos or none at all that are hardcore members, especially members in their upper 40s and older.  Many times gang members with several gang tattoos, large tattoos, or facial tattoos are often identified as hard core gang members or were hard core gang members in the past.  There are also hardened gang members that have no tattoos or a small one.  The placement of the tattoo is very important with the gangs affiliated with the FOLK and PEOPLE nation alliances (Chicago based gangs). The FOLK gangs accent everything to the right side of the body; therefore, their tattoos often appear on the right side of the body.  The PEOPLE nation gangs accent everything on the left side of the body; therefore, they wear their tattoos on the left side of the body.

(Warning!  Do not get multiple, large, or facial gang tattoos just to look cool or to scare people, getting these tattoos can cause you a lot of trouble if you don’t know what you are doing.  Many gang members that have these tattoos are experienced gang members that are well known on the streets and already know the consequences of these tattoos and deal with it.  If you are some young kid that wants these tattoos to be cool, you may get yourself into trouble you can’t handle!)




 The teardrop tattoo has been developed across the United States for decades now.  There are two different types of teardrop tattoos, the ones that are a colored in teardrops, and the ones that are not colored in.  Both types of teardrops were developed in the prison system to symbolize the struggles of the gangbanging prisoner.  It is said that biker gangs were the first gangs to use the teardrop tattoo, then street gangs followed.  The teardrop tattoo is not used by one specific race of people, all types of races are seen with this marking.  The teardrops can come in different sizes but they are all located in the same spot near the eye, which is right by the outside corner of the eye.  The teardrop was developed in the penitentiary system as a possible symbol of a few things.  The non-colored in teardrop tattoo means that the gang member had a family member or friend that was killed, and in prison they tattooed the teardrop on instead of crying real tears, because crying is prohibited in prison culture.  The colored in teardrop can symbolize on of two things: either it could mean that it symbolizes a term in prison, or that they killed someone while in prison or on the street.  The fact that the teardrop is always black in color symbolizes that the tattoo has to do with death, whether it means death of someone the gang member loved, or death of freedom due to incarceration, or that they brought death to someone else deliberately.  The teardrop tattoo is used as a warning to the gang members’ enemies that they are dangerous and devoted to the gang.  The placement of the teardrop is essential with Chicago based FOLK and PEOPLE nation gangs.  The teardrop must be placed under the left eye for PEOPLE nation gang members, while the teardrop must be under the right eye for the FOLK nation gangs.  The teardrop tattoo has been used in Australia under different pretenses.  The teardrop tattoo in this country is not used by gang members, but is instead forced upon sex offenders.  The teardrop symbolizes the eternal tear they are going to cry from the beating of angry people that hate child molesters.  So if you are an American gang member with a teardrop tattoo do not go to Australia or wear a band aid to cover it up.  There has been a recent rise in the number of teardrop tattoos appearing on the streets.  Many of these recent teardrops appear in small time gang members that have never seen a jail or prison cell or have never killed anyone.  This is a horribly alarming new trend that is frowned upon by hardcore gang members.  When a gang member will get a teardrop tattoo without earning it, they will go to prison and be tortured and possibly killed by inmates because of the false tattoo.  Close to 100% of the time the prison population will know who has a fake one.


Written By: Zook