Ties Through Tattoos

Today’s gang tattoos take elements from hundreds different cultures in both their symbolism and styling. Since the heritages of modern day gangs are essentially a melting pot, so too are their tattoos. Though most of these cultures and their tattoos developed separately, as the world began to westernize the tattoo culture began to merge. The real popularity of Gang tattoos began with the U.S. prison system. Tattoos were common to get in prison, and almost every prisoner had one. When these prisoners got out they used these tattoos to unite themselves into gangs.

American Gang’s often have initiation tattoos. These have developed over centuries of tribal initiation and coming of age rituals that existed in Africa. When a gang member is initiated he would receive his tattoo to show his belonging to that group, just as the tribes in Africa had done centuries before it. Then this initiation tattoo carries with it all the power of that usually painful initiation process. Today’s gang tattoos still share many warrior-like styling with African Tribes.

As most gangs in the United States are heritage-oriented, each one uses tattoo styles more defined by their own race. The Triads use Asian styled tattoos. Often times they depict dragons and other Asian mythological creatures, referring back to their far eastern heritage. Spanish gangs such as the Latin Kings use many religious symbols in their body art, as Latin American culture is deeply tied to Catholicism. These religious symbols are mostly catholic and date back to the Crusades when Crusaders would often adorn their body in religious symbolic tattoos. (Palermo, 5) African American gangs have gained much of their tattoo culture from African tribal styles and even use some of the same ritualistic meanings for these tattoos. Gang members even share many common traits with tribal warriors. (Demello, 18-24)

The strong ties that tattoos have to gang culture came not only from African tribal rituals, but also from the eastern method of using tattoos to label criminals. These criminals received tattoos for their crimes. When the criminals formed together they all had a common trait, their tattoos. (Palermo, 6)

Gangs share a lot of symbolism in their tattoos with tribal cultures. They both signify the permanence of the belonging to the group; both are given upon the initiation or the coming of age for the member. Those with more tattoos either for their gang or tribe are more respected. Both are ritualistic in nature often receiving tattoos for important events, such as first kill of a rival gang or tribe member.


Brady, C. "From Punishment to Expression: A History of Tattoos in Corrections." Corrections Compendium. 18.9 (1993): 1-5. Print.

Palermo, George. "Tattooing and Tattooed Criminals." Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice. 4.1 (2004): 1-25. Print.

Demello, Margo. Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. Durham,NC: Duke University Press, 2000. Print

Lineberry, Cate. "Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History." Smithsonian 1 Jan. 2007: n. pag. Web. 5 Nov 2010.<http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/tattoo.html?c=y&page=1>.

Chaplin, Beverly Jane. "Tattoo Narratives: A Generational Study of the Changing Meanings of the Tattoo." Dissertation International. 65.3 (2004): 639-C. Print.