Gangs and Prison Tattoos

Bloods & Crips, Norteños & Sureños

Example of Gang or Prison Tattoos

Tattoos have always been used as a means to identify members with particular gangs. Members use tattoos for several reasons. Some members will have numerous tattoos, particularly if they have spent time in prison. These tattoos may include one or more symbols that has been adopted as something unique to identify it’s members.

Tattoos such as a tear drop under an eye or a spider web represent prison time. Many members will have their name tattooed in large bold letters so that rival members will be intimidated. For the uninitiated wearing an unauthorized tattoo could be very dangerous particularly in prison. Prison inmates have been known to remove unauthorized tattoos from non members by literally cutting the tattoo off the person’s flesh.

Some members in particular take pride in branding themselves as outside of the boundaries of conventional society. Tattoos are also used to express their often nihilistic philosophy. Gangsta style tattoos popularized by rappers are often done in a black and gray style and depict firearms, bullets, secret letters and numbers, in old English or gothic script. It is common to have the name of the person tattooed on the back of the neck or have a motto tattooed on the chest.

Example of Gang or Prison Tattoos

It is clear that tattoos have been adopted by mainstream society even though not too many middle-class wannabes are willing to get facial tattoos, or tattoos on their hands - practices common amongst members.

But although gang members try to use tattoos to separate themselves from mainstream society, the effect it has had on the young hip middle class is undeniable. Teenagers who may have no idea of these symbols' original meaning are now wearing tattoos which were originally worn by gang members as badges of honor.

There are many prison gangs in California, the two main ones are:

The Sureños which is Spanish for Southerners. They are a group of hundreds of Hispanic street gangs with origins in Southern California. They are connected with the Mexican Mafia prison organization. The Sureños were the first California gang to make use of gang colors to distinguish themselves from other gangs.

The state of California prison system provided railroad handkerchiefs to inmates in one standard color: blue. Hispanic inmates from Southern California selected or claimed the blue bandanas to identify themselves. Once a member of the Sureños graduates off the street and into the prison system they are designated a part of the Mexican Mafia organization.

Sureño homie 'Joker' from LSD

The Sureños identify themselves with the color blue and sometimes gray, mostly with Los Angeles Dodgers (the baseball team of their home town), Duke University and Dallas Cowboys apparel. Their gang number is thirteen, using Arabic or Roman numerals, or a combination of both: 13, XIII, or X3 and other creative means of symbolism. This signifies the 13th letter of the alphabet, the letter M, meaning La Eme or The M; the Mexican Mafia.

Numerals are also incorporated into the tattoos, such as Tres Puntos (Spanish for Three dots) or X3 for the number 13 (see also: Three Dots Tattoo) which is the representation for the number three within the Aztec numeral system. An additional significance of the LA Dodgers lies in the numbers corresponding to letters of the alphabet: L (12) + A (1) = 13.

MS 13 in the joint.

The Norteños which is Spanish for Northerners. They are also called Nuestra Familia (Our Family), are a coalition of Hispanic gangs in North America, based in Northern California. A member of these gangs is a norteño (male) or norteña (female); based on Spanish usage, these names are often not capitalized when referring to individual members. Mexican Americans who are not gang members, but feel a strong cultural affiliation with others in Northern California, may also call themselves norteños/norteñas or simply Northerners.

The traditional rivals of the Norteños are the Sureños (Southerners). The dividing line between Norteños and Sureños has traditionally been Bakersfield, California. In the late 1960s, Mexican-American inmates of the California state prison system began to separate into two rival groups, Norteños (northerners) and Sureños (southerners), according to the locations of their hometowns; the north-south dividing line was near Bakersfield. Part of the motivation for the split was the desire of the Norteños to be independent of La Eme, a.k.a. the Mexican Mafia.

As with many other gangs, Norteños have been involved in trafficking of drugs and contraband, and armed conflict with other gangs and with police. According to police investigators, a requirement for full membership in Nuestra Familia is committing at least one murder for the gang.

Federal law enforcement agencies, long unable to infiltrate the group, began to step up their investigations in the late 1990s. In 2000 and 2001, 22 members were indicted on racketeering charges, including several who were allegedly serving as high-ranking gang leaders while confined in Pelican Bay. Thirteen of the defendants pleaded guilty; the other cases are still ongoing. Two of the defendants face the death penalty for ordering murders related to the drug trade.


Mexican gang member flashing his gang / prison tattoos

* The MS stands for Mara Salvatrucha a gang composed of Salvadorians