Gang tattoos are used by gang members to show loyalty and membership in a specific gang. They also reflect the gang member's life choices and gang-related accomplishments, like their speciality areas and skills, various accomplishments and even convictions. Gang tattoos are not random; rather they're sort of a secret code, usually only understood by the members of the specific gang. While tattoos are becoming increasingly popular with non-gang members, gang tattoos are considered badges of honour.
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The art of tattooing was once reserved for criminals and outlaws and was forced on them as a way for societies to "mark" them for their crimes. They would be ostracised and soon began to embrace the markings and added some of their own, in an attempt to further separate themselves from these societies. For example, British criminals sent to Australia were marked to symbolise their crime. They later camouflaged the marks by creating new ones over them to erase the stigma attached.
Since tattooing has become a part of mainstream society, many people who get tattoos don't even realise that their tattoos may have gang-related innuendos. For example, Latino gang members often wear a symbol of three dots, generally between the thumb and forefinger. This represents the phrase "mi vida loca" or "my crazy life." Many Latino teens today are wearing the same symbol, and most aren't even aware of its original meaning. This phenomenon crosses all races and many societies.
Gang tattoos are common throughout the world. In the US, a teardrop tattoo worn near the eye indicates that the wearer has killed a person, or that their loved one was killed in prison. Californian gangs often receive a tattoo of their neighbourhood area code. Mexican Mafia gang members might have the number 13 to indicate membership, while British gang members may have a Borstal mark, a dot between the thumb and forefinger, indicating time spent incarcerated as youth.
It's difficult to unquestionably identify a gang tattoo from a mainstream tattoo, but there are a few hallmarks that can help. For Japanese gangs, look for dark circles around the arm. Each represents a crime committed. Hispanic gangs often use a five point crown or star. Mexican gangs use a lot of religious tattoos, like praying hands. White supremacist gangs may use a shamrock, and African American gangs often use letters and numbers.
If you choose to get a tattoo on a visible area of your body, it's important to consider the design carefully. Do your research to ensure that the tattoo you want isn't gang related. You can also check with your tattoo artist, who is likely to be knowledgeable about gang tattoos, at least to a point. Some gangs consider it disrespectful or insulting when an outsider wears a tattoo of a symbol belonging to their group and may retaliate.
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