An art dating back thousands of years, tattooing definitely has been embraced by mainstream society as a means of self expression, memorializing loved ones or rebelling against traditional values. It is estimated that 40 percent of American households have at least one person with a tattoo.
But many out there are making more than just a fashion statement with the ink they wear. Across the nation, convicted felons, gang members, those coming off long prison sentences and even would-be criminals are sporting tattoos. While many of these individuals’ tattoos reflect a gamut of personal beliefs and meanings, there are several that have come to denote specific criminal acts, indicate particular gang affiliations or time spent behind bars.
For Kentucky’s law enforcement officers, knowing, recognizing and understanding these marks and symbols depicted in tattoos can help officers assess with whom they’re dealing and the potential severity of an encounter more quickly than running a license plate or identification card. And that can keep officers safer on the streets, whether conducting traffic stops or answering calls for service.
But researchers are hoping to take this knowledge to a new level, where tattoo images and meanings are not just stored, but are identified and related to particular groups and, potentially, individuals, who have committed a previous criminal act.
Recognizing the huge implications of these symbols and tattoos, the FBI began working to compile a database of scars, marks, tattoos and symbols to identify criminal suspects using a Michigan State University research project on biometric tattoo recognition technology. This technology goes beyond simply identifying tattoos and their potential meanings. It would allow law enforcement to identify criminal suspects when fingerprints and facial images of a suspect are unavailable. For example, if a robbery occurs in a convenience store, but the suspect is wearing a mask and gloves, the surveillance camera at the store may be able to record the image of an exposed tattoo on the suspect and, from there, deduce a list of potential suspects based on the tattoo image.
In a “Government Technology” article titled, “Tattoo Recognition Database Could Help Combat Crime and Terrorism,” MSU professor and database leading researcher, Anil Jain, explained how the tattoo database could be useful in criminal investigations.
“Is this tattoo connected to a gang?” he asked. “Who were the previous individuals who were arrested with the same tattoo, and other such information? Right away you have some information about this person. You may not know his name — the tattoo is not a unique identifier — but it can narrow the list of identities for this particular tattoo.”
Many criminal organizations, such as hate groups, gangs and terrorist groups may have tattoos to resemble their organizations. Once the tattoo has been identified, Jain said, it can be matched to tattoos in the existing tattoo database, which can immediately provide some information about the person whose tattoo is being queried.
As technology progresses, researchers hope to use forensic artist sketches of tattoos recalled from witnesses to cross reference the database as well.
In June 2015, Computer Scientist Mei Ngan of the National Institute for Standards and Technology teamed with the FBI to organize a ‘challenge’ workshop, giving universities and corporations the opportunity to show the results of their research into tattoo-matching technology.
“You can’t use it as a primary biometric like a fingerprint or face because it’s not necessarily uniquely identifying, Ngan said. “But it can really help in cold cases where you don’t have those things.”
During the ‘challenge’ participants were given five scenarios, such as basic tattoo detection, identification over time and matching a partial image of a tattoo to a complete photo. During the demonstrations, some of the systems had hit rates well above 90 percent in certain tests, and, Ngan said, improving the quality of tattoo images during collection may improve recognition accuracy.
The current FBI Next Generation Identification database that includes tattoos, fingerprints and facial recognition, relies on written descriptions of tattoos, which can be vague and not particularly helpful, Ngan said. However, the new technologies being researched will launch tattoo identification and matching lightyears into the future.
Street Tattoos: An at-a-glance guide to keep you safe on the streets
TEARDROPS often mean the wearer has committed murder. A teardrop outline can symbolize attempted murder or that the individual is seeking revenge on a family member for friend who was murdered. However, teardrop tattoos have become popular among rappers and other celebrities wearing them as fashion statements that have no literal meaning.
The FIVE-POINT CROWN is a symbol of the Latin Kings gang, one of the largest Hispanic gangs in the United States. The crown may be accompanied by the letters ALKN, which stands for Almighty Latin Kings Nation. The five points represent the gang’s affiliation to the People Nation gang, which uses the number five.
1488 is usually found on white supremacists, the number 14 represents the 14 — word quote by Nazi leader David Lane, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The numbers 88 stand for the eighth letter in the alphabet, H, and means heil Hitler.
A CROSS chest tattoo symbolizes a Prince of Thieves — the highest rank a Russian convict can achieve. They generally are worn by those higher up in the Russian mob. Russian tattoos have a unique and intricate prison history, each with their own distinct meaning.
FIVE DOTS represent time done in prison. The four dots on the outside represent four walls and the fifth dot on the inside signifies the prisoner. This is an internationally recognized tattoo. The dots typically are found on the inmate’s hand between the thumb and forefinger.
MS13 is a symbol of the Mara Salvatrucha gang from El Salvador. Typically these tattoos can be found anywhere on the body, but usually are in highly visible locations like the face, neck or hands.
ACAB is an acronym that stands for ‘All Cops Are Bastards.’ Often found on the knuckles, the tattoo symbolizes a willingness to go to prison for your crew or gang.
AB stands for Aryan Brotherhood and is a Nazi symbol like a swastika. The Brotherhood makes up 1 percent of the prison population but is responsible for 20 percent of murders inside U.S. prisons. It can be referred to as Alice Baker, the One-Two or The Brand.
LA EME or the M is the symbol of the Mexican Mafia. They are one of the largest and most ruthless gangs in the U.S. La Eme was not started in Mexico, but by Mexican-American inmates in American prisons. They are affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood.
A tattoo of a CLOCK WITH NO HANDS represents ‘doing time.’ The clock face can come in a few forms, such as the face of a wall clock or grandfather clock. Those doing longer sentences may have the tattoo on their wrist, complete with straps, like a real watch.
THREE DOTS commonly represent “mi vida loca” or “my crazy life.” Though not affiliate with any particular gang, it represents the gang lifestyle. It typically is found on the hand or beside the eye. The three-dot tattoo often is created using a stick-and-poke method, requiring rudimentary tools that would be available in prison.
SPIDER WEBS typically represent lengthy prison stays. They are symbolic of a spider trapping its prey, similar to a prisoner being trapped behind bars. Commonly found on the elbows, cobwebs signify sitting around with your elbows on a table for so long cobwebs formed. Webs also can be found on other body parts.