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Interpreting gang tattoos.

Understanding how to interpret tattoos found on gang members need not be a difficult process. Learning the difference between a gang-related tattoo as an identifier versus a nongang-specific body marking is an educational process. Many gang investigators learn to read and interpret tattoos as an ongoing part of the job.

A tattoo is a very important symbol of belonging to some gangs. It is one of the most dynamic indicators of gang affiliation to which a gang investigator has immediate access. Many gangs use tattoos to indicate membership in a specific gang. It is not uncommon, however, to find some groups who use no specific tattoos as identifiers.

Tattoos are part of a process of nonverbal communications used by gang members. Without the need to verbally communicate, a gang member, as well as observant nongang members, can identify a fellow gang member or rival.

Often found in books on gangs, both prison and street gang tattoos are available as either illustrations or actual photos. Newer publications often have a photograph of the gang tattoo. While many gang tattoos are somewhat standardized, the variations of tattoos, "artistic license" employed by the individual gang member or simply the effort to disguise the tattoo, demonstrate the need for education in the understanding of tattoos as an identifier.

Tattoos can be placed into categories describing their format. These categories provide a starting point for gang investigators. Each category reduces the tattoo to its most common yet simple element. The categories of tattoos are alpha, numerical, symbolic/pictorial and combination. Each category represents specific elements common to tattoos used by gang members. Prison and street gang members use different tattoo styles, but they share the same categories. Within each category, gang-related tattoos can be intricate in design, hidden within a larger tattoo and personalized by the wearer while still maintaining the gang's identifier.

Tattoos should be fully documented to include specific information as well as the location of the tattoo on the body. Photographs should be mandatory for the documentation of gang-affiliated tattoos.

It is also important to understand that in many cases the tattoo is a symbol of membership in the gang and, thus, is "gang property." Removal of a gang tattoo may be an outward nonverbal method demonstrating termination of gang membership.

There are cases in which gang tattoos are being covered in order to maintain the covert existence of the gang. If it is determined that a cover-up tattoo exists, water or baby oil spread on the tattoo may reveal its meaning.


Alpha Tattoos

Alpha tattoos use the alphabet to represent the specific name or acronym of the gang. This is a very common category used by both prison and street gangs. Some of the acronyms for the larger prison gangs include: AB for the Aryan Brotherhood; AW for the Aryan Warrior; DWB for the Dirty White Boys; NLR for the Nazi Low Rider; ABT for the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas; NF for the Nuestra Familia; NR for the Nuestra Raza; EME for the Mexican Mafia; EMI for the Mexikanemi; SNM for the Sindicato Nuevo Mexico (New Mexico Syndicate); TS for the Texas Syndicate; and BGF for the Black Guerrilla Family.


The following represent only a tiny fraction of the known street gangs: ABC (Acacia Block Crip); ADC (Atlantic Drive Crip); ECC (East Coast Crip); NHC (Neighborhood Crip); SBC (Santana Block Crip); DLB (Denver Lanes Blood); ESP (Elm Street Piru); FTP (Fruit Town Piru); WSP (West Side Piru); BGD (Black Gangster Disciple); GD (Gangster Disciple); VL (Vice Lord); CVL (Conservative Vice Lord); LK (Latin King); ALKQN (Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation); BGL (Bell Garden Loco); VN (Varrio Norwalk); WF (White Fence); OLB (Oriental Lazy Boyz); and TRG (Tiny Rascal Gang).

Alpha tattoos may appear in gothic or old English font as well as other styles of lettering. Body placement may be important in some regions of the country, while not as important in other regions. Alpha tattoos may also appear as phrases common to the gang, such as "Amor de Rey," meaning love of the king, an expression used by Latin Kings and Crip to the Bone, and occasionally by various Crip gangs.

Numerical Tattoos

Numerical tattoos use a number to represent the gang's name and are a commonly used tattoo by gangs. Numerical tattoos tend to be a geographic indicator as well as a gang name. This category of tattoo uses street numbers and block numbers, as well as area codes, to indicate the geographic area the gang claims.

Numerical tattoos seem to be used more by street gangs than prison gangs, although some prison gangs have been known to use them.

Some notable prison gangs using this category of tattoos are the California Aryan Brotherhood and the 415s, a black prison gang based in the San Francisco Bay area. The 415s may use the area code of the Bay area as its identifier. The Aryan Brotherhood may use the numbers 666 to represent itself as the "baddest" of the bad. The Book of Revelation 13:16-18 states that 666 is the mark of the beast or Satan.

Area codes may not be an accurate indicator of gang affiliation in all cases. Since the area code represents a large geographic base, the gang uses it to claim a general territory or to identify it as representing that area code (in the case of larger nationwide gangs). An example of this might be a 206 BGD vs. a 312 BGD; the former is an area code for Seattle, while the latter is an area code in Chicago. In this case, the gang is using the area code to claim territory in multiple areas of the country while still using the gang's identity.

An example of a numerical tattoo used to represent a gang name is 18, as in the 18th Street Gang, one of California's larger Southern Hispanic gangs. West Coast Crip gangs from specific streets in the Los Angeles area have been known to use, but are not limited, to streets such as 21, 43, 52, 62, 74, 83, 87, 92, 107 and 357. West Coast Blood gangs have been known to use, but are not limited to, streets such as 59, 62, 77, 83, 84 and 456.

Midwestern gangs, such as BGDs and GDs, are known to use 274 and 74, respectively, to represent themselves. This is an alpha/numerical code used by Midwestern gangs. In this case the letter A equals the number 1, B=2, C=3 and so on. By substituting the alpha for the numerical equivalent and vice versa, the tattoo can be interpreted. This style of tattoo is also found in graffiti and writings.

A certain amount of caution must be employed when viewing tattoos and making a judgment on which gang is being represented by the tattoo. In the case of a 74 tattoo, the tattoo can represent a 74 Hoover Crip or a Gangster Disciple (74=GD). An individual who identifies with older Harley Davidson motorcycles (as in 74 cubic-inch motor) can also use the number 74. Although using tattoos by themselves is not an effective method for determination of gang affiliation, it is a good indicator.

Midwestern gangs are often affiliated with alliances, which may include many different gangs. They use a numerical designation to indicate their alliance. This can also be found in tattoo form. People and Folk, two super gangs, use the numbers 5 and 6, respectively. The meaning of the 5 and 6 cross over into various aspects of actual People and Folk recorded information and is too lengthy to be presented as part of this article.


Numerical tattoos may represent streets and neighborhoods that have nothing in common with the area in which they are found. It is common for street gangs to migrate from one area to another and retain their original geographic name/tattoo even if the name is not indigenous to the new location.

California-based Hispanics aligned with northern or southern influences are a good example of this type of migration. Southern California Hispanics will use the number 13 to indicate they are a Sureno (13 is the letter M in the alphabet, demonstrating a Mexican Mafia influence).

Northern California Hispanics will use the number 14 to indicate that they are a Norteno (14 is the letter N in the alphabet, demonstrating a Nuestra Familia influence). Norteno and Sureno gangs are found outside of California in various parts of the country, especially the Pacific Northwest.

If an alpha or numerical tattoo is encountered that is not readily explained, it should be viewed as a potential source of intelligence. As a nonverbal indicator of gang affiliation, it is important to understand what it symbolizes.

Familiarity with alpha and numerical indicators from the region the gang investigator is in provides faster identification. Likewise, familiarity with alpha and numerical indicators from other areas of the country also merits consideration due to the migratory and evolutionary tendencies of gangs.

Symbolic/Pictorial Tattoos

This category is the most difficult to understand. Symbolic/pictorial tattoos tend to be designed at an individual "artistic" level containing the identifier element of the gang's name. Symbolic/pictorial tattoos are used as an overt method to convey gang affiliation. Prison gangs often fall into this category.

Some of the better known symbolic/pictorial prison gang tattoos are the shamrock of the Aryan Brotherhood. The Aryan Brotherhood is rumored to be using a falcon with references to Sinn Fein, which is believed to be the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. The Mexican Mafia has used a black hand, also known as the mano negro, an eagle with a serpent in its mouth (the serpent's body is in the shape of the letter M) and a shield design known as eternal war.

The Nuestra Familia uses a sombrero with a machete dripping blood through it. The Northern Structure/Nuestra Raza has used the Huelga bird and a five-pointed star known as the northern star. The Fresno Bulldogs may use a bulldog with a spiked collar. The Black Guerrilla Family has used a dragon coiled around a prison tower.

The Texas syndicate may use various forms shaped as the letters T and S. One such tattoo is a Texas Longhorn with its horns being the letter T and a dragon coiled around it in the shape of the letter S.

Street gangs in this category tend to be less from the West Coast and more from the Midwest. Black Gangster Disciples use various symbols, with the most common being a pitchfork and a six-pointed star (referred to as the Star of David). Other BGD tattoos include a heart with wings, flames, tail, horns and a bent-eared Playboy bunny. Depending on the name, Midwestern gangs may use a dragon, such as that of the Latin Dragons, or a cobra, such as that of the Spanish Cobras.

Vice Lords use various symbols, with the most common symbols being a five-pointed star and a champagne glass, top hat and cane, and a pitchfork in the down position. Black P Stones use a pyramid with a five-pointed star. Latin Kings use a five-pointed crown and a pitchfork in the down position. Latin Kings also may use a bulldog with a spiked collar with a five-pointed crown on its head.

Symbolic/pictorial tattoos do not necessarily follow a standard format. They may be a stand-alone tattoo or part of an intricate tattoo piece with multiple images involved in a theme. This category of gang tattoo may cover large parts of the body.

When conducting a visual exam of gang-affiliated individuals with multiple tattoos or heavily tattooed areas, it is best to begin the exam in a specific manner. The starting point is less important than the careful examination of the tattoos themselves. By using a routine method of starting in one area and examining it before moving to the next area, a gang investigator will be more apt to discover the more covert tattoos.

By picking a starting point, the visual exam should be conducted in a quadrant format. In the examination of a heavily tattooed individual wearing full-length arm tattoos (often referred to as sleeves), divide the arm into quadrants such as fingers to wrist, wrist to elbow, and elbow to shoulder. A slow, complete side-to-side sweep of each quadrant can then be made before moving on to the next quadrant. Each quadrant should be slowly examined.

In the examination of an individual who has what may be referred to as a full back piece or full back pack, it is necessary to divide the "piece" into quadrants such as shoulder to shoulder, middle back and lower back. Another method might be to divide the back along the spine further dividing each piece into another quadrant by having an upper and lower quadrant. This would effectively divide a full back tattoo into four distinct quadrants. It is important to complete a thorough examination before moving to the next quadrant.

It may be necessary to divide each quadrant again, depending on the complexity or artistic license within the tattoo. A rule of thumb is that the more artistic and complex the tattoo, the smaller the quadrant should be. As noted before, relevant tattoos should be photographed and documented.

The gang member may cooperate during this process and explain the meaning of symbolic/pictorial tattoos. Understanding the meaning of the tattoos enables the gang investigator to develop more intelligence on the gang itself, provide background for future interviews, as well as provide information demonstrating the gang's evolution.

Because symbolic tattoos are well known within their historical boundaries but may not be known in other parts of the country, the migration of gang members allows them more covert identities. The sharing of information about gang tattoos is, therefore, very important to law enforcers who may be able to trace and identify migrating gangs and diminish their impact in new areas.

Combination Tattoos

This category essentially combines all the aforementioned categories. Many gangs, especially street gangs, combine categories of tattoos. West Coast black street gangs are a prime example. They often use alpha/numerical constructions (the geographic area in conjunction with the gang acronym) in a tattoo as in 87 KCG (87th Street Kitchen Crip Gang); 21 ICG (21st Street Insane Crip Gang); 62 ECC (62nd Street East Coast Crip); 62 HPB (62nd Street Harver Park Brims); and 84 SPB (84th Street Swans Piru Blood).


West Coast Hispanic gangs such as F-13 (Florencia-13), F-14 (Fresno Bulldogs), as well as many other California Hispanic gangs may use the gang acronym in conjunction with the number 13/14 to indicate both geographic style of the gang as well as with which gang they tend to align.

Midwestern gangs may use a gang symbol as well as the number of that gang's particular alliance in addition to other numbers/letters indicating their affiliation. An example is that of a gang in the Folks alliance, BGD, which uses a six-pointed star with a pitchfork going through it. The numbers 274 could be a part of the interior of the six-pointed star or the letters BGD could be inserted (274=BGD; 2=B, 7=G, 4=D).

The points of the pitchfork might have the numbers 274 or the letters BGD on it. Gangs using symbolic/pictorial tattoos frequently incorporate alpha/numerical tattoos into the main tattoo theme (being the symbolic/pictorial).

Combination category tattoos may incorporate all three categories, especially if the gang originates from the Midwest. West Coast gangs tend to tattoo with more of an alpha/numerical style, unless they have a very clear symbolic identifier routinely used, such as White Fence using a tattoo of a fence with the letters WF on it and the numbers 1 and 3 on either side of the fence.

There Is Much To Be Learned

Interpretation of gang tattoos is an integral part of the gang identification process. Tattoo education is a vital part in the overall gang education process. The examples provided in this article are just that: examples expressed for illustration and not intended to represent all gangs or gang tattoos.

As an intelligence tool, the interpretation and documentation of tattoos can provide a gang investigator with a great deal of valuable information. In a situation in which a gang investigator is conducting an initial investigation into the gang member's identity, it can provide the name of the gang with which the suspect is affiliated. The tattoo may also provide the location or turf (which may provide the actual geographical area the gang is located in), aliases or monikers and gang names to include deceased members.

In the case of a suspected gang from another geographic area of the country, a numerical tattoo, while not necessarily a gang-specific tattoo, may indicate an area code where the gang member has ties. It may also be the exact name of the gang.

Under an ideal situation, interpretation of gang tattoos may yield the gang's name, geographic region or turf, name of the gang member (often the aka or aliase), even the last name tattooed across the shoulders or on the abdomen as well as information regarding members who have died.

Names of deceased members may provide an investigator with a starting point for an interview or even let the investigator know that a gang member they had particular interest in is dead.

A useful tool that is a principal byproduct of accurate and complete documentation is the practice of continued photographing of the same

gang member. This may clearly demonstrate an ongoing gang identity. A clear link to an ongoing gang persona and continued gang involvement can be documented a by showing the member's new tattoos (most often added while the gang member is new to the gang) and the dates they were added.

This makes it difficult for the gang member to deny affiliation, and also may be a useful tool, from a legal standpoint, when attempting to show the gang member is actually still part of a gang. For this reason, it is important to photograph the tattoo with a camera capable of inserting the date on the photo. At the very least, all tattoos should be dated by the individual who took the photo and signed by that person.


Gang members' tattoos are indelible markings that symbolize affiliation with a particular gang. They are taken seriously by the gang member and are displayed to show not only his affiliation to the gang but his loyalty to his gang. The argument that only members wear gang tattoos is hard to refute. Gang rivals learn to read the tattoos because they are an overt sign of membership.

When corrections and law enforcement personnel learn to read tattoos and their meanings, that knowledge can be used to identify gang members in correctional facilities. Once gang members are appropriately identified, facility managers have more information to house offenders appropriately, diminishing the violence levels that occur with gang activity.

William Riley is the security threat group coordinator for the Washington State Department of Corrections. He is an executive board member for the ACA affiliate National Major Gang Task Force, and a member of the Northwest Gang Investigators Association and the California Gang Task Force.
COPYRIGHT 2006 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:CT FEATURE
Author:Riley, William
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Previous Article:Intelligence: the key to gang suppression.
Next Article:Girls in gangs: on the rise in America.

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