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A few generations ago, most tattoos were viewed as potential gang tattoos – whether or not they were actually gang related. That’s because tattooing was relatively uncommon among the mainstream public, so having a tattoo almost automatically meant that you had some sort of criminal or gang association, or had been in prison. In other words, though most people didn’t have the skill to identify symbols, it was more or less taken for granted that tattoos were connected to some sort of criminal underworld. Today, tattoos are very common and they don’t have that association – the vast majority of tattoos we see on the street are not gang related.
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that gangs, or gang tattoos, have disappeared altogether. There are still tattoo designs that are specific to the different ethnic gangs that operate in some major cities. Gang tattoos have more in common with traditional tribal tattoos than they do with modern decorative body art; they are designed to mark an individual as a member of a group, as well as being an indication of status.
Ethnic Gang Tattoos – How to Identify Symbols
For the average person, it is unlikely that you will encounter gang tattoos at a close enough range to try and identify them. These gangsta tattoos are a way for gang members to identify each other and members of rival gangs. On the off chance that you happen to spot what you think might be a gang tattoo, however, here are a few guidelines.
Japanese gang tattoos (which usually identify members of the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia) take the form of simple black rings around the arm – one ring for each crime a gang member has committed. The similarity with tribal tattooing is quite strong – there, too, tribe members got additional tattoos in recognition of deeds they had done.
Hispanic gang tattoos vary a lot, because they relate to the numerous specific gangs. One recurring image is a five-pointed crown; this is often found on the upper arm. Alternatively, a small five pointed star can be found on the hand, between the thumb and first finger.
Mexican gang tattoos and other Latin gang tattoos are highly symbolic in nature, often showing the members’ religious background or blood ties. The common ‘praying hands’ tattoo signifies ‘praying to God for forgiveness’ for one’s deeds. Another common image is the ‘Lady of Guadalupe’, a favourite saint of many Hispanics.
Tattoos are fairly new to the Vietnamese – in Vietnam, tattoo parlours are outlawed and tattooing is done almost exclusively in prisons, with home made equipment. Vietnamese gang tattoos are relatively rare, therefore; more often, Vietnamese-American gang members will identify themselves through other body modification, like cigarette burns on the hands or ankles. An exception is the tattooed initials NCA, for “Ninja Clan Assassin”. These and other gang tattoos are not something you’ll be likely to see very often. Many gang tattoos are done in prison or with home made equipment, so they might have fuzzy, unsteady lines compared to those of professional tattoos.
Gangsta style tattoos are getting mainstream nowadays, because they are idealized and popularized by rappers. When gang or ghetto tattoos are taken out of their context (the gang) they are not the real thing anymore though.
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