One afternoon about five years ago, I was summoned from my desk at the detective division of a major Southern California suburban sheriff's department and asked to meet one of the staff drill instructors at our academy gymnasium.
When I walked into the gym, I could see that the DI was not having a good day. Two other instructors had a young white male cadet spread eagle on the wall, and I could see that he was having an even worse day.
The cadet was dressed in his workout clothes and, when I approached, one of the instructors ordered the young man to take off his T-shirt. His upper body was "sleeved" with numerous intricate tattoos and the instructors wanted my opinion of their meaning.
These were not the "store bought" flash tattoos of a youthful rebel or the military tattoos of a former soldier or sailor. From his waist to his shoulders, this clean-cut blond cadet was adorned with tattoos of complicated knots, runes, and other symbols associated with hardcore skinheads and the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang.
The young cadet's story was that he had once been a devotee of hardcore punk and skinhead music and that the tattoos had no other meaning. I looked carefully at the tattoos, which clearly took years to complete and cost hundreds of dollars. They were well done, sharply outlined in thin precise lines. But they weren't the work of a commercial tattoo artist. No, these were relatively recent homemade or prison-made markings produced by an experienced underground artist.
All of the tats were the same color, the blue-green that tattooing of black ink under light skin produces. They were not colorful like the type you might buy at the tattoo parlor.
Later, I was asked by the staff if the tattoos were gang tattoos and if they might be a problem if the cadet completed training and became a deputy sheriff. The tattoos were not gang specific and did not indicate membership in any gang I was familiar with. However, in my opinion, this young man should not have been allowed to complete the academy because you can bet your "risk management" budget that his body decoration would become a problem in the future.
Our cadet was obviously associating with someone who had the experience and time to painstakingly cover him with underground ink. And if he was so into hardcore punk and skinhead bands, he must have certainly known the meaning of the symbols he had so carefully chosen. Although the cadet had avoided overt Nazi symbols, his tattoos clearly identified him as sympathetic to hardcore skinhead and white supremacist groups. No one except the most extreme believer would cover his body with these symbols.
And even if the young man had disavowed himself of such beliefs, I advised the staff that his tattoos would be a liability on the job. Can you imagine what would happen if inmates in the County Jail or gang members in South Central Los Angeles recognized these tattoos on a deputy's arms? And if the tattoos were revealed in court in a trial in which the deputy was accused of brutality against a person of color, the department would have to pay a massive claim. He is, after all, permanently marked with symbols associated with hate groups.
Tell-Tale Tattoos American and even European street gangs have traditionally used tattoos to intimidate, show gang affiliation, and indicate rank. Gang tattoos are also the gang member's permanent record. They tell who he is, what he believes, what he's done, where he's been, where he did time and for how many years, and how many people he's killed.
If gang graffiti is the newspaper of the street, then gang tattoos are the "signposts to the soul." Sadly, many American law enforcement officers are illiterate in the language of gang tattoos. Such ignorance can be hazardous.
The permanent marking of the gang member's body, especially his face, is an outward sign of a lifelong commitment to the gang and an intimidating challenge to both would-be rivals and law officers.
The following is a basic primer on how to read gang tattoos. It's not intended to be comprehensive. But if you learn this material, then you will be able to understand many of the symbols that have been inked into the skin of some of the worst gang criminals.
Black Guerrilla Family
California inmate and former Black Panther George Jackson started the "Family" in the 1960s. Later, this organization became a revolutionary Maoist organization known as the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) on the West Coast and the Black Liberation Army on the East Coast.
Like many other prison gangs, BGF members are told to avoid obvious membership tattoos that can be used by law enforcement to validate membership and lock them down in the Security Housing Unit (SHU). But once it's obvious to staff that someone is a member of the BGF, the members will tattoo themselves and wear their BGF symbols openly.
The most obvious BGF tattoo is, of course, "BGF." You will also see the numbers "276," with 2 representing "B," 7 representing "G," and 6 representing "F."
Other common BGF symbols include a dragon coiled around a prison tower and a machete crossed with a shotgun or rifle. Since BGF started as a Maoist group, members often sport the red star of the Revolutionary Communist Party.
During the Watts Riots of 1965, I lived in Compton, Calif., where I ran a teen center as part of a War on Poverty program. During the rioting and looting in my Willowbrook neighborhood, I saw gang members from the Piru Street area dressed in red and calling each other "blood brother." I believe this was the early roots of the group that became the Piru Street gang and soon united with other anti-Crip gangs to form the Bloods.
This P-Funk tattoo does not mean that the owner is a fan of '70's funk band Parliament. The P is for "Piru" and it marks this inmate as a member of the Piru Street gang, a Los Angeles-based Blood set.
Although there are only about 70 Blood gangs with about 7,000 members in Los Angeles County, they are more united and disciplined than their rival Crip gangs. However, one thing they have in common with their long-time enemy is that they have spread to most major cities in the United States and Canada.
All Blood gangs in Los Angeles were once allied. However, the rap music industry wars, revolving around Mob Piru member and rap music mogul Suge Knight, caused divisions within the gang. Now, several Blood sets have become enemies.
Blood tattoos are pretty basic. You will see P for "Piru" or B for "Blood." Another popular Blood symbol is CK. This can stand for "Crip Killer" or "Cop Killer."
Sorry to disappoint anyone who actually believed the Stanley "Tookie" Williams propaganda, but he did not co-found the Crips in 1972. The Crips organized in the late 1960s in southwestern Los Angeles. Their name likely comes from the fact that the Crips' true founder, Raymond Washington, walked with a limp and used a cane. Crip is, believe it or not, shorthand for "cripple."
Today, this gang is anything but crippled. There are 210 Crip gangs with more than 17,500 members in Los Angeles County alone. And this Southern California gang is now national and even international, with affiliates in almost every major U.S. and Canadian city. There are even Crips sets in France.
Like the Bloods, the Crips are not very imaginative with their tattoos. Their most common symbols are the letter C for "Crip" or BK for "Blood Killer."
Blood killer is a strong indication of the historic enmity between the Crips and their rival Los Angeles gang the Bloods. But not all Crips get along either. In fact, most Crips sets are rivals until they arrive in prison.