Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Tattoos are used among criminals to show membership of gangs and record the wearer's personal history - such as his or her skills, specialities, accomplishments and convictions. They are also used as a means of personal expression. Certain designs have developed recognised coded meanings. The code systems can be quite complex and, because of the nature of what they encode, they are often not widely recognised.
ACAB is an acronym often integrated into prison tattoos in the United Kingdom. It is most commonly rendered with one letter between the knuckle and first joint of each finger, sometimes as symbolic small dots with or without the accompanying letters.
In Hong Kong, Triad members are referred to as "left a black dragon , right a white tiger" because so many triad members sport a black dragon tattoo on the left bicep and a white tiger tattoo on the right. On their backs, they would probably have another extensive tattoo of traditional themes, i.e. dragons and/or tigers.
Extensive body tattoos ('body suits') are commonly worn by Yakuza members. These traditional tattoos are known as irezumi in Japanese. Their size and elaborate nature show not only the wearers' affiliation, but also his ability to endure pain.
Starting in the Kofun period (300-600 A.D.), tattoos began to assume negative connotations. Instead of being used for ritual or status purposes, tattooed marks began to be placed on criminals as a punishment (this was mirrored in ancient Rome, where slaves were known to have been tattooed with mottos such as "I am a slave who has run away from his master").
At the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912 A.D.) the Japanese government, wanting to protect its image and make a good impression on the west, outlawed tattoos, and irezumi took on connotations of criminality. Nevertheless, fascinated foreigners went to Japan seeking the skills of tattoo artists, and traditional tattooing continued underground.
Tattooing was legalized by the occupation forces in 1945, but has retained its image of criminality. For many years, traditional Japanese tattoos were associated with the Yakuza and many businesses in Japan (such as public baths, fitness centers and hot springs) still ban customers with tattoos.
A tattoo of three dots in a triangle, usually found on the skin between the thumb and forefinger, stands for "mi vida loca " ("my crazy life"). Along with the pachuco cross , it is a popular "generic" tattoo among Hispanic teenagers, and has no direct connection to gangs. The tattoo has also been adopted by Vietnamese teenagers, along with the similar interpretation of "toi khong can gi ca" ("I care about nothing"). See Three Dots Tattoo.
Russian criminal tattoos have a complex system of symbols which can 'read' to give quite detailed information about the wearer. Not only do the symbols carry meaning but the area of the body on which they are placed may be meaningful too. The initiation tattoo of a new gang member is usually placed on the chest and may incorporate a rose.
In addition to voluntary tattooing, tattoos are used to stigmatise and punish individuals within the criminal society. 'Grins' may be placed on an individual who fails to pay debts in card games and often have very blatant sexual images, embarrassing the wearer.
The four suits:
- Spades - the 'suit of thieves' (particularly where the symbol appears upside down)
- Clubs - another 'criminal' suit
- Diamonds - the 'chummy suit' (i.e. stoolpigeons and informers); this suit is usually forcibly applied
- Hearts - a sexual symbol; it may mark the wearer out as a 'passive homosexual' within the prison
- 'Grins' (these are humorous tattoos usually incorporating a grinning face and are often accompanied by text)
- Snakes (snakes have a particular symbolism and are usually worn by high ranking gang members)
- Tigers (signifies an 'enforcer')
- Cats (the cat is associated with the characteristics needed by a criminal)
- Skulls (these are usually worn by high ranking gang members)
- 'Finger ring' tattoos (there is a complex system with many types of ring tattoo)
- Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Danzig Baldaev, ISBN 3882439203
- Essay and book review
- Website for Victoria & Albert Museum (London) Tattoo Exhibition
- Gang related links
- US prison gangs (good site with tattoo drawings)
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