I was browsing the magazine collection in the library, when I picked up an issue of
XXL magazine with the rapper The Game on the cover.  I stared at the face, the
star tattooed on the right cheek and the open tear drop under his left eye, and
the first thought in my head was “ What did he do to his face? Why on Earth
would somebody tattoo their face, especially the tear drop. Isn't that a tattoo
that gang members have?” It is funny how my mind automatically linked the facial
  tattoo to membership in a gang, but it reminded me of gang members depicted in
TV series, like Southland, who I often had facial tattoos on them. Tattoos are
fascinating, there is always mystery behind them: the reason why somebody got
them, the significance of the design...facial tattoos are an even greater
mystery since they are a bold statement and must be really relevant to the
wearer in order to exhibit them on their face. Why do people do this? Why do
gang members in particular do this? I was intrigued, and I was determined to
find an answer to my WHY? The truth is, that tattoos are gaining more and more
notoriety, with celebrities and athletes leading the way into making this skin “decoration”, a hip way of expressing one's individuality. Although tattoos are still frowned upon in many circles, it is not uncommon to see women and men
  displaying their body art, going as far as tattooing the body parts that not long ago were considered tabu: the face and the neck. Especially rap artists have started the trend of facial and neck tattoos, with Lil' Wayne, Gucci Mane,
Game and athletes catching on  the trend. 

PictureLil Wayne
Not many know that tattoos have been around for thousands of years. In 1991, scientists have discovered in the Alps the frozen mummy of a 5300 year old man, whom they called Oetzi. Otetzi revealed a big surprise: his body was covered with over 50 tattoos from head to toe, making him the bearer of the oldest tattoos in the world. The art of tattooing is probably even older than that; “tattooing  had and has many functions, including: decorative, religious, magical, punitive; and as an indication of identity, status, occupation or ownership.”(Gustafson, p.80) Before the discovery of the Alpine ice man, the oldest tattoos were found on some Egyptian mummies, dating back as far as 2000BC. In the modern world, there are still societies where the tattooing as a form of protection is still practiced, a good example would be the yantras of Indochina or the Maori tattoos of the Polynesian Islands.

While in these cultures  tattoos have a benign cultural significance, the western society has always viewed tattoos and their wearers  as sinners,  associated with “degradation, criminality and deviance” (Gustafson, p.79)  In Inscripta in fronte: Penal Tattooing in Late Antiquity,Gustafson investigates the punitive roles of tattoos in the late antiquity, bringing literary proof  from ancient books and correspondence, that tattoos applied to the forehead were a common form of punishment, that was not reserved only for slaves.” Tattooing is an indelible mark of infamy which adds insult to injury, and makes the punishment permanent should (under unforeseen circumstances) the other punitive situation prove temporary.”(Gustafson, p.90)

The practice of punitive tattooing by authorities has survived the centuries, we can find categorical examples of this  procedure in 18th and 19th century France and England and the US. In France for example the name of the punishment used to be tattooed on the faces of the criminals. “...In France some criminals were marked with the abbreviated name of their punishment: GAL for those condemned 'aux galeres' (the galleys); TP for those condemned 'aux travaux forces a perpetuite' (hard labor for life); TF for the lesser punishment of  'travaux forces' (hard labor). “ (Gustafson, p. 96). 
In the same era, in Mother Russia, prisoners condemned to hard labor in Siberia, would have the letters KAT tattooed on their faces, the abbreviation for the Russian word katorga (slavery).
By tattooing the crimes or the punishment on the faces of convicts, authorities not only exercised what Gustafson calls “micro-physics of power” over that person, but they intended to “alter an individual's mind set, one's notion of selfhood and of personal empowerment...while externally the tattooed person is stigmatized,  subjectified, marginalized, degraded, labeled and stripped of self esteem, reputation and standing in the community, there is yet even more a mark.” ( Gustafson, p.91) The inner world of that person is affected, the “ego's basic sense of selfhood in the world.” 
When, at the end of the 19th  century France abolished the punitive tattooing of prisoners with  other nations following the example, a curious thing happened: the number of voluntary tattoos among convicts exploded. What was once a punitive tool in the hands of the state, gradually turned into a tool of empowerment, freedom, self expression, symbol of status and affiliation, a symbol of belonging . A prisoner, a convict is the nothing but a number, he becomes the property of the state, his identity, his clothes, his past life...they are all stripped and removed the moment he enters jail and prison. With tattoos he can show that he is still master over his own body, and by inking it, he rebels against the 

Tattoos spread across the criminal world, being exported from the prison life to the streets, justifying in the way the aversion of society against these symbols of criminality. Prisons are also the birthplaces of some of the most notorious and violent gangs in the US, like  La Nuestra Familia, Black Guerilla Family, Aryan Brotherhood, Neta just to name a few of them. Gangs have evolved into highly structured criminal organizations, many have a military type of hierarchy and military type of ranks, and they have developed their own secret language, communicated through a series of visual cues like clothing, colors, graffiti, hand shakes and hand signs,  a certain way of walking, and of course tattoos.
These tattoos play an important part in the life of a gang member, both on the streets, as well as inside prison walls because “gang members use tattoos to communicate their membership, rank, specialization,  and personal
accomplishments....As pictorial life-histories, expressions of cultural values and practices, and announcements of group solidarity, tattoos can be conceptualized as a form of identity work. Moreover, gang tattoos, inasmuch as they portray  group initiation, memberships, and notable personal feats accomplished in the service of their gangs, represent efforts at symbolic self-completion that communicate moral careers.” (Phelan &Hunt, p.280)

The purpose of this project is to investigate criminal tattoos, especially gang related tattoos, inked on the body, both on the outside as well as the inside of the prison walls, putting emphasis on facial tattoos and see what functions gang related tattoos have for the wearer, the rest of the gang and outsiders of the gang, be it members of other gangs or people non affiliated with gangs and criminality. There have been a number of studies that focused on tattoos of gang members, convict tattoos, and  how tattoos relate to the wearers identity. I would like to connect these studies to the subject of our class: the face, and explore how facial tattoos of gang members affect their identities, what identity it
projects on the onlooker, how it affects their every day life and their future.Is a facial tattoo a disfigurement or is it an esthetic enhancement? We use our face to express our emotions,  and according to Simmel, “ there is no other part of the body whose wholeness can easily be destroyed  by disfigurement of only one of his elements.”  (Simmel, p 276) Are facial tattoos interfering with the way people read the faces of the wearer? 
I will argue that:
 a)Tattoos and facial tattoo are an important part of the wearers identity, gang related tattoos in particular.  Each tattoo has a certain significance and tells a story, shows a certain level of commitment and loyalty to the gang he belongs. Phelan and Hunt name them “ symbols of completeness” and “self defying labels”. 

b) These identities only exist if others acknowledge them as true. Gang related tattoos offer the wearer a certain identity inside the gang and a prison and a totally different one on the outside world. 

c)Gang related tattoos and especially facial tattoos are as much a “form of self expression as they are a form of self damnation.”

In order to prove these points, I will analyze academic research done on gang related tattooing and criminal/prison tattoos, and I will use documentaries and websites that are dedicated exclusively to gang and prison tattoos.Most of my research for this paper lead me to academic papers and documentaries that connected tattoos (implicitly facial tattoos) to prisons. This is not surprising, since the life trajectory of many gang members somehow involves a stint in prison. In her study “Gallo's body”, Susan A. Phillips notes that, “ the traditional path of many gang members take is from gangs to drug addiction and prison.”( Phillips, p.359), and this path often begins with a troubled youth, dysfunctional and abusive family environment,  a stint in juvenile prison and recruitment to be part of a gang. Many young people who join gangs do it  because they feel that they finally find a place where they feel like they belong, a community that offers them protection. These “new families” often come with a language of their own, “ visual markers of identity”, like clothing and tattoos. “In tattoo, gang members are able to carry their affiliations with them permanently, so that even if they are alone or in a strange place, they remain symbolically with the group and their neighborhood.” (Phillips, p 361)


Phelan and Hunt have investigated the tattoos of convicts belonging to the gang Nuestra
Familia, analyzing how tattoos of the gang members symbolized their “moral careers” and the status levels: pre-initiate, initiate, member, veteran and superior. These symbols represent background experience, training, status attainment, past deeds and anticipated futures ( Phelan &Hunt) and they “reflect a readiness to enact certain classes of behavior” (Phelan&Hunt, p.279) and they also play “a crucial role in creating the convict's sense of identity in relation to the prison establishment... tattoos operate not only to
create individual and group identities, but to assert cultural differences, first between prisoners, and second, between tattooed prisoners and members of the outside world.” (Demello, p.10) The authors emphasize, that the location and the type of the tattoos communicate different levels of commitment: the bigger and more visible the tattoos, the higher the commitment, therefor face and neck tattoos suggest the highest levels of commitment. Being in a gang means to live
at the brink of society, to be an outsider, and many gang members pride themselves to have this status. By tattooing the neck and the face they “flaunt their lack of membership in straight society” (http://www.linagoldberg.com/gangtattoos/) According to Phelan and Hunt, the first phase of recruitment is the pre-initiate one. In this phase, the person wanting to join the gang, may tattoo on themselves certain symbols that show their interest in joining the gang, compatibility and availability. These symbols do not mean that he is part of the
gang, they just mean interest in joining. In the case of La Nuestra Familia, it can be a symbol that announces a “Northern” identity, like the word “Norte”, or XIV ( N is the 14th letter of the alphabet), X4, the Aztec number
fourteen (two bars and four dots above them),  NF,  the Northern star, the Huegla bird or the word ENE. As a side note, it is important to mention the rivalry between Norteňos and Sureňos, two rival groups of gangs.
The northerners split from the southerners, because the northerners wanted their independence from the Mexican Mafia (la eMe), the demarcation line being Bakersfield, Ca. The Sureňos have as identifiers the number 13, XIII or X3, SUR13,SURX3 the word EME which together with Emero, MM and the black hand ( the black hand is a symbol that the wearer an elite member of the Mafia, a symbol that needed to be earned) are a symbol for the Mexican Mafia.  Their identifying color is blue.
For more information and more gang identifying tattoos please click here:

In the initiate phase for the gang La Nuestra Familia, a common symbol tattooed is that of the rose. This phase is an ambivalent phase, where the person still has to prove himself to the gang in order to become a full member with the benefits of membership. The carrier of a rose tattoo can be dangerous for prison guards, since many initiates have to prove their worthiness by killing either a rival or a prison guard.

The third phase is that of a member, and there are certain tattoos that signify this status. For example, the letters NF, or the words Nuestra Familia, the words Nuestra Familia encompassing a sombrero that hides a person underneath and has a dagger going through it are all symbols that transmit that the person is a member of the gang. It also means, that they have not accomplished anything remarkable yet. A tattoo that means the same thing and it is always placed on the face, is the cross under the left eye. This tattoo also means a high level of commitment to the gang.

One of the most common gang tattoos, is the teardrop under the eye. It is such a common tattoo, that it has gained notoriety among celebrities also, Lil' Wayne for example has 3 tears tattooed on his face.  There are many opinions about the significance of that little teardrop, in the case of Nuestra Familia, it is the symbol of the veteran status among the gang. It is a symbol for either time spent in prison, a tear for every stint, or for number of people killed. 
This particular tattoo is a symbol adopted by many gangs, and it can mean different things, depending on the wearer. The teardrop can be open or closed ( it is filled in with color or not). An open teardrop used to signify that the wearer
killed someone, the closed one , that he had lost someone he loved. There is another type of teardrop, one that is half filled in, that means that someone close to the wearer was killed and the wearer killed the assailant. ( As a side note, the teardrop has a totally different meaning Down Under: in Australia child molesters in prisons are forcefully tattooed a teardrop, to inform and alert others about his crime).

The simple star is another symbol that suggests veteran status among the Nuestra Familia gang members; depending where it is positioned on the body it means different things. Worn on the arm or on the body, it means that the person has killed one person, worn on the face, it means the person has two kills. The hierarchy of Nuestra Familia is as follows: there is a General who has absolute power, under him there are 10 captains, captain number 1 succeeds the General if he passes, under the Captains there are Lieutenants and under the Lieutenants there are soldiers. A gang member with a star on his face is one kill away from becoming a Lieutenant, therefore prison guards and members of other gangs should know, that this person is very dangerous, very keen in proving himself and advancing in rank.

While Nuestra Familia facial tattoos are somehow discrete, and cover just a small part of the face, there are gangs whose members tattoo their loyalty on the whole face and neck. Famous for their facial tattoos are the gangs Surenos,  MS13 or Mara Salvatrucha, Eighteen (18) and the white supremacist gangs. ( The videos above are a compilation of tattoos of the gangs 18 and MS13. Please watch them, for more accurate understanding of the tattoos)
 Members of these gangs are often seen with tattoos as MS13, XIII, the Mara hand sign and the number 13, the Aztec number 13 all over their bodies and their faces. ( The same symbols I have given as identifiers for the Sureňos,
 and it is a bit confusing, since the Sureňos are mostly Mexican gangs and the MS13 is prolific in El Salvador and Honduras and other Central American countries. According to some sources, the MS is affiliated with the Sureňos, and they identified themselves as Sureňos as well.)The gang 18, displays following tattoos: X8, XV3, Diez y ocho, 666, 99, 18.  While some of these tattoos are aggressive “in your face” tattoos that are pretty much self explanatory, other require the knowledge of a secret language to decipher.

Russian prison tattoos are known to be very intricate and rich in symbolism and hidden meanings, and while they are not directly gang related as in “gangs” we know here in the US, they are related to the criminal world ( the Russian Mafia uses them) and play an important role in the wearer's identity, especially inside the violent Russian prisons. Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell have published a 3 volume long encyclopedia of Russian prison tattoos, basing the encyclopedia on the ethnographic research conducted by one of the Russian prison wardens, Danzig Baldaev, who worked as a prison warden at Kresty prison from 1941 to 1981. During this time he collected hundreds of tattoo drawings and their meaning; this information proved useful even for the KGB, who recognized the usefulness of his work. These prison tattoos are an intricate secret language, and they tell the story of a convicts criminal past. The value of these tattoos are limited to the prison, since convicts without any tattoos have no status. Many convicts get tattoos while in prison, but only after they earned the right to have them tattooed. Wearing an unsanctioned tattoo can cause the person their life. ( Things have changed since the fall of the USSR in 1991 since the codes have not been enforced as much). Russian prison tattoos have been developed in the feared gulags, by professional criminals, people who were incarcerated for robbery, murder, rape etc. They called themselves the Thieves in Laws, “vor v zakone” in Russian language, and they different from the political prisoners in the prisons, who were there because they were charged with being “enemy of the people”, a charge that could mean anything from speaking out against the Communist regime to being a liberal politician. It was the Thieves who created the strict laws and hierarchies of the prison, laws that were enforced and abided by the other lower ranked thieves. Just as it is in the case of US and Latin American gang members, the Thieves inked on their body their “service records” , their body art was their identity card, and it “described the nature of his criminal offense, the prisoners worldview and the prisoner's position in the criminal world.”( Groom, p. 2) As I mentioned before, a man without tattoos had no status in prison, and fellow convicts would
automatically consider him a chukhan, a stooge. A caste system developed among the thieves: thieves, bitches and
muzhiks, the peasants. The muzhiks were the lowest ranked thieves who were forced to do along side the political prisoners the most demanding work in gulags and prisons. The thieves had a strict code of non cooperation with authorities, and those who broke it, like those who served in the Army during the war were considered “bitches” for
doing so. Another similarity between the Russian prison tattoos and the other gang related tattoos is that they provided a “sense of belonging, protection, and security crucial for survival in prison....an aspiring thief would thereby
sacrifice his physical body and soul to the world of thieves. A true thief, therefore, is both born in prison and dies there.” ( Groom, p.5) For every crime the convicts commits, he receives a corresponding tattoo called a
reklama,regalia, rapiska or kleimo. Different tattoos, distinguish different casts in the prison
hierarchy.( please see the attached pdf file for descriptions of tattoos and click on the link below for an article containing important pictures and the explanations of the tattoos.)

File Size: 1022 kb
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What is uncommon among Russian prison tattoos are facial tattoos. Many times, facial tattoos (but also tattoos on other parts of the body) are forcefully tattooed on prisoners, on thieves who broke the code, as a  way of shaming them or as warning that they can not be trusted. A very serious offense for which  the punishment is a forced tattoo on the body, is to lose at cards and not pay up debt. Not only will they lose their position and be from then on seen as paria, but will often have an obscene tattoo on their bodies, if not face to remind him of the deed. The highest insult for a thief is to be called “bliad” a whore, and this word would often be tattooed on them. Eyes on the abdomen were also often forcefully tattooed on prisoners, they mean that the wearer is a homosexual. Being a homosexual was not well regarded in prison and in Russian society in general, and it continues to be so even today.  Child molesters are often
forcefully tattooed on the forehead the words “Child rapist”. Sometimes convicts who expect life in prison tattoo their faces, since there is no hope for them to get out. Only the  most hardened prisoners tattoo on their eyelids the words “Don't wake me up!”

According to Phelan and Hunt, “identity is an ongoing process that emerges from individual's interpretative and communicative efforts. To assume identities, conceptions of self and others are announced, situated and placed” and that “images of identities 'given' do not always correspond with those 'given off' and, as a result, considerable effort is expended to repair and clarify presentations of self.” (Phelan &Hunt, p.278) In the case of gangs tattoos, the image that the gang members and convicts project through their tattoos is perceived differently by other members of the criminal world as it is perceived by the general population. I already described earlier what these tattoos mean and
symbolize in the criminal world, I would like to focus now on the point of view of the general population. Even though tattoos have gained a tremendous popularity among a certain age group and are worn by individuals from different
social classes, from actors to singers, to athletes, they are still often associated with an underclass, and even this underclass is divided  in “spheres” based on “social, economic, artistic and technological factors” (Demello, p.
10) Demello identifies 4 such spheres: the professional sphere (here she includes the fine art of tattooing preferred by the middle class), the semi-professional sphere, street tattooing and prison tattooing. According to Demello, prison tattooing are a representation of the lowest social position. Not all the tattoos are created equal. The way they are executed, the colors used, the techniques and the imagery, the tools used, tell a different storyabout the wearer and his social status. The street tattoos and prison tattoos are sometimes made with very rudimentary tools; the most basic way of getting yourself inked is by wrapping thread around the tip of a sewing needle, dip it in ink and by plucking the skin. This method is very primitive, the image that results is a very poor one, since it is hard to draw a continuous line. These tattoos are usually self inflicted, and are placed on areas of the body that are very open, usually the arm or the hand. One of the simplest tattoos that is popular among Hispanic teenagers but also often used by gang members, is the three dots tattoo. It can be placed on the face or on the skin between the pointer finger and the thumb. One of the meaning is “mi vida loca”, living the crazy life, but for gang members it usually means  the hospital, the prison or
the grave, the 3 places they are more than likely to end up. Three dots on one hand and one on the other is a symbol for MS13 or the Sureňo gang while four dots arranged as a square or four dots on the fingers on one hand and one dot on the finger on the other hand are a symbol that means affiliation with the Norteňos. 

This technique of self tattooing tells about the wearer that he has no access to  professional tattooing or he can not afford them. A more elaborate street and prison tattoo method, is to arrange the needles on a board in the wanted shape and then press it into the skin, rubbing paint on the wound. It is a faster way of inking a tattoo, but the shapes resulting are still a give away that the technique is rudimentary. The third way if executing a street and a prison tattoo is with a home made rotary machine, that has one needle, and is capable to execute tattoos with finer, continuous line as well as shading. (I want to share a personal story here: I got my first tattoo at the age 16, and it was with a home made rotary machine, just like the ones used on the streets and in prisons. It was 1998 in Romania, in a small town, in a country where there were no tattoo parlors, and tattoos were a tabu. Only the guys who identified themselves as “rockers” sported one, and they were regarded by the general population in my town as trouble makers, drunks and no goods. My brother happened to hang out with them, and so did I, and while they did enjoy consuming alcohol, the were not involved in criminal activities, and were pretty down to earth guys. I got tattooed a dolphin on my lower abdomen, and it was made by a friend of my brother at his house, in his bedroom, on his bed, while his parents
used to come in and out the room to admire the progress and with my brother sitting next to me swatting the flies away. It cost me a pack of cigarettes. I still have the tattoo, and looking at it now, it is a terrible work, the shading
is not even, the design is bad, but at the moment it was that was available, and I thought it was the coolest thing on Earth. I kept the tattoo a secret from my dad, until this day he does not know about it. I belonged to a subclass, viewed
by the general public as made up by delinquents and soon to be jail birds. My dad had  a very radical view about people with tattoos so I did not want him to know I had a tattoo to avoid conflicts in the family.)
Even if the tattoos made with a rotary machine are of better quality, they still can not hold up to the tattoos made with a professional tattoo machine, that can hold up to 15 needles, and that are more often than not executed in color. Demello notes that prior to 1970 it was very easy to spot lower class tattoos (street and convict) since those were made exclusively in black ink. Nowadays black only tattoos gain more and more popularity, especially tribal tattoos, so the color is no longer an indication about the wearers background. But a clear indication of the wearers affiliation are the content of his tattoos and the placement. As we have seen, convict and gang related tattoos are a statement of belonging to a certain group and tell the story of the criminal background of the wearer, are often racist and offensive, are often placed in highly visible places like the face and neck and hands. The general population avoids facial and hand and arm tattoos, the tattoos have most of the time a personal meaning to the wearer. The motivations for criminal and gang related tattoos are: showing group affiliation and commitment and, are a sign of resistance against the authority and mainstream society. For the general population the motivation of getting a tattoo are to be unique and enhance individuality, to mark personal achievements, to tell a personal narrative, to display individual religious
beliefs, for art and beauty and fashion. Gang related tattoos, especially facial ones are meant to intimidate and scare...those outside the gang.
Studies conducted by sociologists, social-psychologists and ethnographers on the practice of tattooing have connected tattooing to “cultural deviance”, convicts, gangs, disenfranchised populations, and view  “tattoo enthusiasm” as pathological. The wearers have “developmental or cognitive defects” and are exhibiting tendencies for “physical aggressiveness, promiscuity, substance abuse and suicide” (Atkinson, 2004)  With views like these in the academic world about tattoos and their wearers, it is no wonder that many who opt to get tattooed chose a place for the tattoo that is hidden, and avoid areas like the face, neck and hands. These areas are deemed inappropriate for people who intend to enter the workforce; tattoos in these areas attract unwanted attention that distracts from their skills,  it hinders them in scoring a good job and people discriminate against people who actually wear a facial or neck tattoo. (Wilson,
2008) According to Sarah E. Wilson, “A facial tattoo is an indelible expression of a limited aspect of one's identity. It cannot change unless the tattoo itself is altered or removed. Thus, when one bears a facial tattoo, one bears that aspect of one's identity that is signified by that tattoo constantly...For many, it would seem, to bear the socially-visible tattoo is, quite literally, to wear a single identity upon one's sleeve” (Wilson, 2008) In case of a person who is wearing a facial or neck tattoo it means to be identified with a criminal life, gang affiliation and  prison time, even if the person has never been in jail or belonged to gang in his life. The sheer fact that he wears a facial tattoo, that is often worn by gangs as a weapon of intimidation, associates the wearer with aggressiveness and criminality. 
I was inspired by my research, to walk one day in the shoes of a person who wears a facial tattoo, so for one day I applied a non-permanent tattoo on the right side of my face, near my eye, and one on my forehead. I wore it a Monday while I took my son in the morning for story time at the local Barnes and Noble. Needless to say that  people stared at me, especially the kids. Kids did not hold back their questions and were not shy about pointing at me while asking their parents, "what does that lady have on her face?" I tried my best to ignore the stares but it did make me feel self conscious and I started wishing that my day ends sooner. In the afternoon I took my son to daycare on the military base, and when I passed the gate and showed my ID to the sentry, he took a double take at my face before he gave me back my ID and wished me a good day. At the day care center the ladies who worked there ( and who all know me) assumed that I had some fun with my 3 year old and I forgot to wipe off the tattoo. The ladies in the library, who also know me, did not think for a bit that those were real tattoos.  It was an interesting day wearing facial tattoos, although most of my audience was familiar with how my every day face looks like, so I did not get to many negative reactions. I got the stares from the kids and some adults in the book shop, but that was about it. This experiment would have worked better if I had the opportunity to be around people who I never met and maybe apply for some jobs in person, see the people's reactions. I can not imagine spending the rest of my life with facial tattoos, it is a very great adjustment to go through life, never being invisible again.

For gang members taking the decision to tattoo their gang affiliation on their faces and necks, might impact and increase their status inside of the gang, but they ruin any chance of  having a normal life and of ever leaving the gang life behind them. This bring me to my third part of my thesis, that gang related facial tattoos are both a form of self expression as they are a form of self-damnation. 
 In many cases, the average age of joining a gang by a troubled youth, is 14. The teenage years are marked by
influenceability, by the searching and forming of one's identity, and for being rebellious and  always looking for a way to shock. Tattoos help them integrate in the gang family, help them identify with a group and help them shock the society that had abandoned them. Soon after joining a gang, tattoos start covering most of their bodies and faces, and soon the art on their bodies make them, literally, belong to the gang. There is no life outside the gang, and even if they chose to leave the gang, it is impossible for them to do so, because the markings on their skin reveal their affiliation no mater where they go. In “Gallo's body” Phillips notes that gang members with extensive tattoos are “at war with their own bodies, alienated from figures and personas they once helped to create...Multiple contexts that define lives, when marked indelibly into the body, may generate mismatches between internal identities and physical appearances...Tattoo creates aliens on the skins, where symbols are oddly cast as both self and other on a surface that mediates inside and outside worlds.” (Phillips, p 359)

No other tattoos create “aliens” as well as facial tattoos do. One might argue that facial tattoos are a kind of self mutilation, a self inflicted disfigurement. Not only do gang members “mutilate” their faces but they “mutilate” their
futures, their chances of ever leaving violence behind and live a normal life. Our faces are the mirrors of our souls, we communicate with them as much as we communicate with our words and voices. We express emotions through facial
expressions, that are read and interpreted by the people around us. Heavy facial tattoos might act like a mask, interfering with the ability of others to read the emotions transmitted through facial expressions. Heather Buttle has
investigated the traditional Maori facial tattoos, the Ta Moko and how these facial tattoos interfered with how others could recognize and process the human face,  how it influences others to recognize somebody's identity, gender, race
and speech. The Ta Moko are intricate facial tattoos, black spiral patterns and curving lines that, just like gang related tattoos, tell the story of the wearers identity, his rank, his genealogy, his spiritual authority and position in life. Buttle also uses the word “alien” when referring to the appearance of wearers of a Ta Moko.  For face recognition and for distinguishing a face from another, we rely on “configural processing”, that is we recognize faces that have their elements displayed in their familiar orientation, two eyes, one nose, the eyes above the nose, etc. The moment the elements of the face are scrambled around, or we observe the face upside down, and the familiar arrangement of
features is disrupted , we no longer recognize the face. The Ta Moko lines have similar effect to scrambling the facial features, therefore it makes it harder to recognize the face under the tattoos. It also interferes with the interpretation and encoding of emotional expressions. People interacting with persons having heavy facial tattoos, take longer to decode the facial expressions, or can not decode it at all because they are distracted by the designs of the drawings. This is another reason why people often stare at people with facial tattoos. In case of gang related facial tattoos, not only were they tattooed on the face to intimidate, but they also distort the facial expressions of the wearer. For people who want to leave the gang life behind, this makes it extra difficult. The only way of erasing their past is by erasing their tattoos, And this is a very expensive and painful process, that not many can afford. The only way to erase tattoos is through laser removal, and just one session can cost as much as $400. Often multiple sessions are necessary. For ex gang members and ex convicts this is often off limits, so they often turn to do it yourself methods that involve sanding off the tattoo, burning the tattoo off with cigarettes, burning it off with acid or using tattoo removal creams that have dangerous ingredients. The following documentary (part 1) shows just to what lengths some former gang members go to remove their facial tattoos and get a chance to live a normal life. ( for part 2, 3 and 4 please click on the links)
Luckily there are clinics and charities that offer tattoo removals for gang members and ex convicts, who are willing to leave behind the gang life and want to start their life anew. The removal process has to be swift since those who decide to leave the gang life are often the target of police harassment and are in danger of violent gang retaliations from their former gang members. Most of the gangs are true to their creeds of “Blood in, blood out”. Joining a gang takes “blood”, since the gang member often has to prove themselves that they are worthy, and leaving the gang often ends with bloodshed, either the gang member who wants to leave is killed, or he is attacked and has his tattoos that show his gang affiliations forcefully removed. 

Our relationship with our face is very intimate, it is the part of our body that we care for the most and the best. No other  part of our body plays such an importance in how society sees us, in how we feel about ourselves, in the way we are treated. A beautiful and attractive face will always bring its owner social advantages that those who were not as lucky in this area will never have. Putting permanent marks on our faces, such as brandings or tattoos, might help us express ourselves and might reflect our identity in a certain time frame, but since what we like and what we don't like, and what we believe might change in time, as we mature and as we are shaped by experience and life, facial tattoos can transform from a self expression to self destruction.( It is in the case of gang related facial tattoos, as I have tried to demonstrate in my paper. Some gangs have prohibited facial tattoos, for the reasons that the police can identify them easily and harass them, and because it makes it harder for them to blend in with the general population. In El Salvador for example, the gang 18 encourages its members to dress in a "professional" way in order not to stand out, and tattoos in visible areas are discouraged, since the "Mono Dura" policy allows police to round up and arrest anybody who has a tattoo that associates him with a gang.)

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Deas, Amy. "Out Of The Darkness And Into The Light: Removing Gang Related and Offensive Tattoos." Thesis. San Jose State University, 2008. Http://www.sjsu.edu/socialwork/docs/1AmyDeas298OutstandingProject.pdf. Web. 18 Oct. 2013

Demello, Margo. "The Convict Body: Tattooing Among Male American Prisoners." Anthropology Today 9.6 (1993): 10-13. JSTOR. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.< http://www.jstor.org/stable/2783218>.
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Wilson,Sarah E. "Marks of Identity: The Performance of Tattoos among Women in Contemporary American Society." Thesis. Universityof Maryland, 2008. Http://drum.lib.umd.edu/bitstream/1903/8234/1/umi-umd-5444.pdf. Web. 3
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 Groom, Derek. "The Evolution of the Thieves' Code: An Analysis of Russian Criminal Tattoos." Thesis. UCLA, n.d.
Http://www.international.ucla.edu/media/files/groom-vol-six-lg-4ou.pdf. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.

Atkinson, Michael. "Tattooing and Civilizing Processes: Body Modification as Self-control." Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue Canadienne De Sociologie 41.2 (2004): 125-46. Wiley. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.

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Lisa Williams
3/9/2020 11:34:39 pm

What does 3 tear drops under left eye cross between eyes and loyalty over right eyebrow from prison mean?

9/9/2020 11:29:40 am

What does the above tattoo with the three dots and the two bars underneath mean?


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    Imola Nagy
    Capstone Senior Reseach Study
    CC499 -Fall 2013 Semester
    Professor Nina Hien


    December 2013