Read on for more insight into one of tattoo culture’s most fascinating phenomena. Thanks to television and movies, many people have become fascinated with prison culture and the different rituals and practices behind bars.
Perhaps this intrigue comes from people’s desire to experience danger vicariously while remaining in the safety of their homes, sitting on the couch and contemplating the different realities of people’s existence.
Of all the various stereotypes and made-for-TV representations of life behind bars, one of the most pervasive and dramatized elements is the teardrop tattoo. Despite the prevalence of this trope in television programs and action movies that fictionalize prison life and catch the attention of the masses, this impressive design has its roots planted firmly in reality.
Before the days of Justin Beiber and Post Malone sporting face tattoos, ink was associated with the fringes of society—most notably criminals—and like many things, special significance was given to these permanent markings. Within the prison subculture, tattoos have specific meanings, with many designs requiring a person to earn their ink by completing different acts or crimes. By far, the most recognized of these prison tattoos is the teardrop.
Teardrop Tattoos: A Varied and Complex Tattoo Symbol
In the outside world, the meaning behind tattoos can be as varied and eccentric as the person sporting the ink. Behind bars, the significance of tattoos is much more clearly defined. However, this is not to say that these rules are set in stone. They help gain a more thorough understanding of what these designs mean.
Teardrop Tattoos: Important Side Of The Face
In many United States prisons, it is understood that the side of the face a teardrop is inked on further defines what the piece means. A teardrop on the left-hand side of the face indicates that a prisoner has killed someone. Many argue that there is a one-to-one ratio for teardrops and murders, although this may not always be the case.
Teardrops on the right side of the profile are more often linked with a dead family member or friend. It is worth noticing that these are not hard and fast rules and that making specific assumptions about someone’s past based on their ink is not a very good idea, especially in prison.
Teardrop Tattoos: Solid or Outline
Another component of a teardrop that is said to notify the meaning behind the tattoos is whether the design is packed in solid ink or simply an outline. Again, these ideas can vary from region to region and means to means. Many people claim an overview represents an attempted murder, while a solid shape means the act was completed.
Teardrop Tattoos: Origin
The true origin of this ubiquitous prison tattoo is lost to history, although references are dating back in the US at least forty years. While there is little doubt that the practice has roots going back much further, the teardrop was first brought to the mainstream’s attention in an article published in the New Yorker in the 1970s. It detailed the experience of a Mexican gang member who served time in the United States corrections system.
Teardrop Tattoos Associates: Spiderwebs
Besides the teardrop, perhaps the most instantly recognizable prison tattoo is the increasingly popular spider web design. While this design has made a complete transition to the world of tattoos outside of prison, originally, spider webs were unmistakable symbols of the wearer’s time behind bars. The webs represent being trapped, and these pieces are usually placed on the elbow.
Teardrop Tattoos Associates: Mi Vida Loca
Originating in Mexican gangs and dating back as far as the 1940s, this common tattoo features three dots arranged in a triangle and is most often placed on the hand or below the eye. Instead of any specific affiliation, this tattoo represents the wearer’s dedication to the gang lifestyle in general.
Teardrop Tattoos Associates: Five Dots (Quincunx)
This tattoo comprises four dots in a square shape, with the fifth dot placed in the centre. While it may look similar to the three dots of the mi Vida loca design, this piece has less to do with a wild, gangbanging lifestyle and more to do with time spent behind bars. Usually located on the hand, the four dots represent the walls of a cell, with the central dot symbolizing the wearer, locked in a box.
Most common in the world of hip hop, with its glorified depictions of street life and criminal enterprises, there are quite a few artists that sport teardrop tattoos. Lil Wayne is probably the most famous of all celebrities with teardrops on his face, although Californian rapper The Game also sports a teardrop below his eye. Both artists have stated that their tattoos represent friends they have lost to the violence of the streets.
Teardrop Tattoos: Growing Trend or Bad Idea
Despite the growing popularity of face tattoos in popular culture, many people still identify these powerful tattoos with their original, criminal associations. Despite their striking appearances and the ever-increasing acceptability of face tattoos in modern society, it is best to leave teardrops to those who have earned them.