Prison Tattoos & Their Meanings

Violent fights between gangs can be caused by something as simple as a tattoo. 

Newschannel 10's Marissa Bagg joins us from Amarillo's Clements Unit with part one of an in-depth report, on the meaning behind tattoos in our prison system. 

In prison, a tattoo is much more than just body art. It represents who you are, and who your enemy is. "If they're at war with a particular group then that offender will be identified as one of their enemies by just looking at their tattoos," says Gus Vaquera.

Vaquera is a Gang Officer in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He is trained to investigate things like tattoos to prevent violence from breaking out inside a prison. 

An inmate with an identifying tattoo often becomes a target in prison. "He has a choice, he can fight one-on-one or find other members in the facility that will back him up, but 80% of the time they don't fight they lock themselves up and just ride it out."

But Vaquera says sometimes riding it out isn't an option, because these wars can last a day, a month, even years. All because of one symbol on one inmate's body. 
"We read the tattoos and it tells us who they are and where they came from and the time they've done, the tattoos tell us a story," he says.

Vaquera brought in examples that prisoners sketched for tattoos. Every inch has meaning.
"(In this sketch) Time isn't doing him, he's doing time. The hourglass, again he's doing time. The calender years indicates how many years he's been incarcerated - some offenders will have calender years tattooed on body. They're always thinking of their friends their loved ones, their wives out in the free world."

Other tattoos represent what gang a prisoner is in, what crimes he's committed and who he has killed. Those are the tattoos Vaquera is most interested in - but they are getting harder to identify. "Because we have confirmed their members they've decided to camoflauge their tattoos."

And they are doing it all behind bars with home-made tools. "It's an ongoing problem you know you can take away the tools from the offender, it's a big problem but security does stay on top of it."

Newschannel 10 found a former gang member willing to speak out about his tattoos and what they mean in gang life.

Hear about his experiences Wednesday night on Nightcast.