Much study has been done over the gang phenomenon, why people are drawn into gangs and why they can be so destructive. The typical gang member is young,
disadvantaged and lives in an urban environment. While there are exceptions, they tend to be male, black, Asian or Hispanic and come from a broken home with often absent parents or none to speak of. Another distinguishing characteristic of a gang member is his tattoo.
Being a member of a gang is like being a member of a large family, that you are initiated, rather than born, into. Getting a tattoo of something that symbolizes your gang shows loyalty and dedication. Perhaps in this case, ink runs as think as blood, maybe thicker.
Despite their growing social acceptance, tattoos have long been away to label those who rebel, or don’t fit into mainstream society, like prisoners, carnival workers, bikers, pirates and gypsies. The Japanese often used tattoos as part of a criminal’s punishment, branding him so everyone he encounters will know not only that he broke the law, but the nature of the crimes he committed.
Besides getting inked in the usually places, like the arms, chest, back and legs, gang members often get tattoos in more conspicuous and less popular areas such as the hands, face, neck and skull. Tats like these not only show their allegiance to the gang, but also demonstrate that they’ve turned their back on society at large. The larger and more prominent the design, the more clout its owner has within the gang world, and the less credibility they have with mainstream society.
Unfortunately, street gangs are synonymous with criminal activity, especially illegal drugs, weapons and the sex trade. Because of their illicit lifestyle, jail time is something they should probably plan for. If a gang member hasn’t been tattooed yet, he’d better hurry and get one before he’s shipped off to the pen.
Tattoos are invaluable to the prisoner. While they run the risk of being identified by a rival gang member, they will also get the notice of members of their own gang within the prison population. This means there will be people around that have their back. Being associated with the gang goes a long way to ensuring their safety behind bars.
The tattoo will also let other prisoners know what his status in the gang was on the outside. Respect is paramount to prison survival. If you don’t have a tattoo, you have no credibility. Either you aren’t dedicated enough to your gang, or you aren’t in a gang and are just trying to pose as a gangbanger to for protection. Either way, you better watch your back, because no one is going to trust you. If you go in the big house with no ink, you’d better come out with some.
Most gang related tats with simply say the gangs name and territory, but there are some more generic symbols common to gang members that aren’t necessarily restricted to a particular gang. One is the pachuco cross, a simple crucifix with three small dots above it usually placed on the hand between the thumb and index finger. This design is used by Hispanic gangs and stands for “mi vida loco,” or “my crazy life.” Southeast Asian gangs have adopted a similar symbol: three dots on the hand standing for the phrase “To O Can Gica,” or “I care for nothing.” The very same symbol identifies a Cuban gangster as a competent thief.
The stigma associated with tattoos may have lessoned, but they still remain a powerful aspect of a person’s character. In no situation is this more true than in a street gang.