Gang Tattoos: When “Family” Is A Deathly Value
Nothing symbolizes gang members' commitment to their gangs more forcefully than the gang tattoo.
These symbols proclaim the individual's allegiance to the group in a way that is both permanent and deeply personal, being written on the body itself. But in recent years, thanks to a combination of social and technological changes, the significance and the permanence of gang tattoos are both being challenged. As a result, it appears that the power of these signifiers has begun to erode.
Tattoos are thought to have existed since the beginning of mankind. The oldest tattoo ever found was on a man frozen in a glacier near Austria who was believed to have died in approximately 4000 B.C. Although it's not known whether the frozen Austrian was a criminal, for most of recorded history tattoos have been associated with unlawful behavior and the underworld.
The early Romans tattooed slaves and criminals as a means of identification. During the years 300-600 C.E. in Japan, criminals were sometimes tattooed as punishment for their crimes. Criminals in the Mediterranean region in the third century C.E. were often tattooed or branded with symbols indicating the crimes they committed; sometimes the victim's name was even emblazoned on the criminal's forehead.
But while society has often imposed tattoos in order to identify the tattooed as criminals, many people have also embraced these stigmatizing marks. Being an outlaw can be a source of pride as well as shame. Gang members in particular take pride in branding themselves as outside of the boundaries of conventional society. Until recently, tattooing was restricted to stigmatized members of society, including gang members, carnival workers and prisoners--categories that often overlapped. It is significant, however, that tattoos were not imposed on these groups, but chosen by them as a means of self-identification and, often, a symbol of belonging.
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Tattoos have long been a means of identifying oneself with a group or culture. Gangs were one of the first groups to use tattoos as a means of denoting identity and affinity, but groups as diverse as the military, sports teams, and even the popular country group The Dixie Chicks have used matching tattoos as a visible sign of the members' bond with one another.
For gang members, however, tattoos are a way of both asserting membership in the gang and flaunting their lack of membership in straight society. For this reason, street gang members will often get tattoos on their hands and faces so as to permanently bar them from being a part of normal society. The larger and more prominent the tattoo, the harder it is to hide, the more impressive it is to other gang members. For this reason, two of the most widespread gang tattoos are often found on the most visible parts of the body: the hands and the face. For example, 18th Street gang member Sergio Ochoa tattooed the numbers "187" (the California Penal Code section which refers to murder) above his eye after being convicted of a 1990 killing of a rival gang member. A common tattoo among Hispanic gang members from many different gangs is the pachuco cross tattooed on the hand between the thumb and index finger. Alternatively, the same area is often embellished with three dots in a pyramid shape, a symbol that stands for "mi vida loca," "my crazy life." Southeast Asian gangsters have adopted the same tattoo of the three dots, defining its meaning as "To O Can Gica," or "I care for nothing." In Cuban prisons the same tattoo declares that the wearer's criminal aptitude is in larceny.
Here are some photos of tattooed gangs members, take a look!