Gang Tattoos: Their Meaning and the Gangs who represent them. | MafiaLife Blog

Gang Tattoos: Their Meaning and the Gangs who represent them.

 Gang Tattoos

Gang Tattoos are a long-practiced custom throughout the world. Almost every gang, inside and outside the United States, has some symbol to show others of gang membership. Two of the most infamous gangs, the Vor v Zakone (also known as the Russian Mafia) and the Mexican Mafia, are prime examples of what gangs expect their members to tattoo on themselves.

Gang tattoos in the Russian Mafia are vastly different than gang tattoos in the Mexican Mafia.’ Tattoos done in Russian prisons are often done with extreme detail and care. Russian gangs members often devote themselves entirely to the gang, body and all, forsaking all friends and family members. Russian gang members, specifically the Vor v Zakone, cite multiple meanings to their tattoos; they are a highly secretive group. Gang members in the United States get gang tattoos to show membership. Many of the tattoos are simply symbols of membership with one specific meaning. Some of the tattoos are done in shoddy prison conditions by untrained “artists.” In this blog, I will show the differences between the two groups of people and how gang tattoos can lead to stigmatization, regardless of ethnicity.

Here are gang tattoos that most people would recognize as affiliation with a certain gang membership, such as the Aryan Brotherhood’s tattoos. The most prominent Aryan Brotherhood tattoo is a swastika along with ‘AB’ embedded on a shamrock, as seen below.

The numbers 666 can usually be found
 on the leaves of the shamrock
 Another tattoo that is popular among gang members and other criminals is the tear-drop below the eye. This particular tattoo has various meanings, depending on the person receiving the tattoo. Some people associate the tattoo with the “West Coast” meaning – that an individual has killed someone before. The tattoo has shifted from the original meaning and has opened to many new meanings. Other meanings of the tattoo include mourning the loss for a loved one or having served a long prison sentence (or a loved one’s prison sentence). The tattoo also changes meanings depending on if the tear-drop is filled in or not. The tear-drop tattoo can also be used as a gang identifier – if it is under the left eye it meant you were a Blood or People’s Nation; under the right eye meant Crip or Folk Nation.
Popular rapper Lil’ Wayne sports the tattoo
below his right and left eyes

What happens to prison inmates with gang tattoos once they get released? Having gang tattoos visible to the public does not help the image of “ex-convict.” There have been a few examples of this problem recently in the news. There have been a few men on trial for various crimes who have very visible tattoos. It seems that the juries in these trials have been prejudiced when coming to decisions about the crimes. One court went so far as to cover up the defendant’s tattoos (although you can clearly still see the facial ones).

The Russian Mafia

In 1994, Russia’s Interior Minister, Mikhail Yegorov, estimated that the number of organized crime groups had grown from 785 during Gorbachev’s reign to over 5,000. By 1996, the number had grown to almost 8,000. Today, no one is really sure what the number has grown to. Organized crime has existed in Russia since the reign of czars in the form of petty theft and burglary. Around the time that the Soviet Union emerged, so did a new band of criminals known as Vor v Zakone (“Thieves in law”). These criminals began fill the gap that the Russian economy was creating by supplying cigarettes, vodka, jeans, gum and technology that the rich could afford. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, the Vor v Zakone began to play an important role in the criminal hierarchy of Russia.
This particular group of criminals began abiding by certain rules in prison, such as forbidding members to cooperate with authority. The Vor v Zakone consider prison to be their true home and have a saying that reflects this belief: “The home for angels is heaven and the home for a Vor is prison.” Under the code of the Vor v Zakone, members must have no emotions, must forsake all family members, have no wives or children, and to never deny Vor v Zakone status amongst others.
The Vor v Zakone are known for having very well-articulated tattoos. The tattoos are usually done in the prisons with homemade tools, so they are on the body for life. Tattoos are often done as a rite of passage for the criminals – they are often tattooed before they are even sentenced to prison. It is hard to decode Vor v Zakone tattoos because most of the tattoos have multiple meanings. The reasoning behind this is so that people who are not involved with the Zakone will not know their whereabouts. The Vor v Zakone tattoos also have hidden meanings as well, such as the widely popular cathedral with onion-shaped cupolas tattoo. To the average person, this looks like a religious tattoo. However, to a Russian criminal, it has a very different meaning. The number of cupolas present is the number of times a person has been incarcerated.
Cathedral tattoo, as seen on Russian criminal
Another reason for the hidden meanings behind the tattoos is because criminals can show how tough they are to other prisoners without the obvious designs. A lot of the “popular” prison tattoos are religious symbols. To anyone looking at a Russian criminal, the tattoos would make the person seem very religious. Another good example of a religious tattoo having a completely different meaning is the Madonna and Child. It is thought to “ward off evil”, which I find ironic. In reality, this tattoo symbolizes that the person has been a criminal from a young age.
Huge tattoo of Madonna and Child
One of the most recognizable tattoos is the eight-point star, often placed on the chest and on the knees. This tattoo, when placed on the knees, means “I won’t stand on my knees before the authorities.” When placed on the shoulders it shows rank as Thief.
Eight-point star
Stars on the knees indicate the rank of Captain
Other common Russian prison tattoos:
Spider facing upwards indicates
active criminal
~Spider: symbolizes that the person is a thief. If the spider is facing towards the person’s head, it means he is an active criminal. If the spider is facing downwards, it means that he is leaving the life of crime.
~A crucifix and Mother of God with the Christ child in a typical Orthodox fashion: ‘I will not betray.’ Usually on the chest.
~An eel wrapped around an anchor: hope for the salvation of the soul
~An eye inside a triangle: The All-Seeing Eye, the symbol of God’s omniscience
~A serpent with an apple: a symbol of temptation

~Erotic tattoos with the penis as the focal point

Sometimes tattoos are given by force. They are often put on the face by force. These particular tattoos are meant to stigmatize and embarrass the criminal. They could be given to a criminal for owing someone gambling money or breaking the unspoken “criminal code.” They often humiliate the person’s ethnicity, sexual orientation or involvement with prison officials. Humiliating tattoos are often forcibly given to the outcasts of prison, such as the child rapists. A tattoo that is often worn by homosexual men is a pair of eyes tattoos on the lower stomach. This can be seen in the above picture of the man with the Madonna and Child on his chest.

In the Russian prison system, tattoos tell your life story. If you have no tattoos, you do not exist. These tattoos tell the number of times you have been incarcerated, where you have been, what crimes you have committed and more. It seems that these tattoos are your entry into the very private world of the Russian prison. Many people have tried to decode the tattoos, but no one has gotten all of the meanings behind the tattoos ebcause there are so many variations, often kept private.

The Mexican Mafia

The Mexican Mafia (also known as Le EME) was formed in 1957 by Chicano gang members at Deuel Vocational Institution. In 1992, La EME membership was right at about 700 people. In 1998, it doubled to almost 1,500 people. Today, the membership continues to soar. Outside of prison, La EME is still an ominous threat to people, responsible for 10% of San Antonio’s homicide rate. California and Texas prisons both have large numbers of La EME gang members; however, these two branches of the gang are not linked. While both branches are under the umbrella name of the Mexican Mafia, the Texas branch calls itself “Mexikanemi” and the California branch “La EME.” There are also differences in name between southern California branches, Surenos, and northern California branches, Nuestra Familia.

The Mexican Mafia has a strict, written constitution that members must follow. The San Antonio Express-News learned from a 2005 trial that the Mexican Mafia “shall deal in drugs, contract killings, prostitution, large-scale robbery, gambling, weapons and everything else imaginable.” This constitution also outlines that members released from prison become “free-world soldiers,” required to serve the gang’s economic interest by dealing in drugs, racketeering and prostitution outside the prison. The most recently released parolees, deemed “Wolfpacks,” carry messages to gang leaders from inside the prison. There are 12 basic rules outlined in the Mexican Mafia’s constitution, including membership for life, a high level of integrity, and every member has the right to wear the Mexican Mafia Tattoo (discussed below). The Mexican Mafia does not have one specific leader; rather, there are many leaders with various “ranks” in the gang.

One former Mexican Mafia leader, Rene Enriquez, came out and revealed some of the secrets of the gang. Enriquez once killed for the gang and also ordered the deaths of men and women in prison and on the streets. When Enriquez decided to leave the gang in 2002, he became the highest-level Mexican Mafia leader to work with the police. According to NPR, Enriquez looks like the typical gangster with many of the gang’s tattoos displayed on his body. Enriquez, however, believes he is not the typical gangster.
“I believe I’m a cut above the rest. As a mafioso, you have to be an elitist. You have an elitist, arrogant mentality. That’s how you carry yourself in the Mexican Mafia. That’s how you project yourself.” Enriquez was involved in organized crime for 20 years, 17 of which were with the Mexican Mafia.  In 2002, when Enriquez decided to “defect” from the Mexican Mafia, this put him at the top of the gang’s hit list. Today, he has many regrets, but ponders the fact that a bunch of high school dropouts have been able to turn the entire criminal justice system upside down. “I was rather proud of being a Mexican Mafia member. I did things in the organization that some people had never done. We pushed towards being a financial success. We started thinking about intellectual progress, the infiltration of society,” Enriquez says. He also finds it ironic that a lot of his former enemies – cops – are now his protectors and friends. He is currently in prison serving a double life sentence for murder.

The Mexican Mafia’s first symbol is the national symbol of Mexico – an eagle and a snake around a wreath, lying on crossed swords.

One of the Mexican Mafia’s gang symbols

Another popular tattoo of the Mexican Mafia is a handprint with the letters ‘eMe’ inside:

A more recognizable Mexican Mafia tattoo

There is a saying that goes along with this tattoo that says, “When the hand touches you, you go to work.”



Gang tattoos represent different things to different gangs. In my opinion,the Vor v Zakone has much more detailed tattoos than the Mexican Mafia. The Vor v Zakone puts many, many meanings into their many tattoos, whereas the Mexican Mafia only has a few meanings per tattoo. While both organizations are secret, the Vor v Zakone has much stricter rules than the Mexican Mafia. Both organizations also communicate some message through their tattoos, whether it be showing membership or communicating criminal status.The Vor v Zakone is by no means “better” than the Mexican Mafia because their tattoos have multiple meanings. Both organizations are very visible in the gang circle and will continue to be infamous organizations, identifiable by their respective tattoos.

  ~Stephano Vincenzo Massaro


11 Responses to Gang Tattoos: Their Meaning and the Gangs who represent them.

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  5. The eme has changed a lot since enrique. They have recruited new brothers that are professionals that wouldnt look like the original tattoo drug addicts from back in the days. The new ones are college degree business professionals. They have already infiltrated society and discourage the new carnales from even getting busted.Theres to many locked down doing life. The want the new brothers to stay on the streets and grow the black hand of the california eme on the streets. Financial success is one of the objectives. This discludes dealing drugs. Theres hundreds of brothers that are already involved in drug trafficking, taxing the paisas, etc. The carnales knows that it also only last so long. You recruit uneducated dope fiends then the organization could go only so far. You recruit college degree intelligent drug free individuals with business oriented mentalities then the organization is a successful enterprise with the sky as the limit. This also includes the carnales in physically fit top condition. You cant rely on the emes success with out of shape herion addicts that has no education with no business direction on know how. You dont see the U.S. army sending men to war without the proper training, equipment, education, finances, etc. The eme has evolved into something entirely new and isnt just a prison gang anymore. They despise the term prison gang. They run legitimate ventures thus keeping the heat to the minimum.

    • They are not something new in doing this, the Russian Mafia do this and have become the most feared because of, they are brutal, they are vicious, they control a lot of things but they are not fuck-ups, they have education, respect and drive. Many have PHD’s and doctorates. I read something saying “most crime organisations pay doctors, police and politicians: The Russian Mafia ARE doctors, police and politicians. I believe they don’t use drugs, a lot of them are also Ex-KGB and Spetsnaz (just like Los Zetas from Mexico was started as a Gulf Cartel hit squad)
      The English and Irish mobsters (not street gang members, they are different) are also much like this, because it is very hard to get away with anything in the UK because we are the most watched country in the world, cameras are everywhere. Some also have military histories and make sure their are people in between themselves and the crime to make it so they cannot be linked.

    • Ohh, I forgot the Thai mafia and Italian Mafiosi: La Drenghetta, LA Cosa Nostra, LA Camorra etc…. they are all the same their biggest money maker is actually Olive oil

  6. The eme has has other tattoos repping the eme but the newer brothers are becoming tatooless meaning they are no longer walking billboards. If someone has surenos or sur on their chest as a license plate then they are somebody also in the eme organization. Not just anyone can get those tats. ..

  7. There are too many gangs that are potentially deadly. Do not go into a gang’s territory. This article should explain the gang activity that is related to the tattoo more. This article should also have more information on the tattoo. There is so much more to the tattoo’s than just what he put.

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