A few generations ago, most tattoos were viewed as potential gang tattoos – whether or not they were actually gang related. 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 a criminal underworld.
A lot of gang members have one or more teardrop tattoos under their eyes, especially if they've spend time in jail. For the average person, it is unlikely that you will encounter gang tattoos at a close enough range to try and identify them. 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 major crime a gang member has committed.
Usually though, tattoos of Yakuza members are very elaborate and detailed, going from sleeve to full body tattoos.
Hispanic and Mexican gang tattoos vary a lot, because they relate to the numerous specific gangs.
Most gang and prison tattoos have fuzzy, unsteady lines compared to those of professional tattoos. Gangsta tattoos are getting mainstream nowadays, because they are idealized and popularized by rappers. Chinese symbols tattoos have been very popular in the Western world the last decade or so, and they still are today. These symbol tattoos are only done by Westerners, you'll seldom see a Chinese with a character tattoo. There was this article in the newspaper a couple of years ago about a teenager who paid $180 to have his arm tattooed with Chinese characters.
If you are thinking about getting a Chinese writing tattoo, make sure you get your translation from a reliable source so the design really means what you think it does.


Also, make sure that the tattoo artist you select is able to reproduce the translation correctly. Hanzi is the name for the traditional Chinese characters used in the official written language of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and Chinese communities out of China. There are about 47,000 Hanzi characters, but many of them are unused (to be fully literate, you need to know about 4000 of them).
Besides traditional Chinese there is also Simplified Chinese, an attempt to increase literacy in China. Melanie Brown (Mel B): Spice Girl with a Chinese character on her belly and a dragon tattoo on her back. Natalie Imbruglia: singer with a Chinese character tattoo on her left foot, meaning courage. Julia Roberts: has a red heart inside a Chinese character, meaning strength of heart, but this tattoo has been removed. Once again: Chinese writing tattoos are a great choice for a tasteful tattoo, but make sure you do your research properly! That’s because tattooing was relatively uncommon among the mainstream public, and having a tattoo almost automatically meant that you had some sort of criminal association. The similarity with tribal tattooing is quite strong – there, too, tribe members got additional tattoos in recognition of deeds they had done. Just like gang tattoos, they form a secret language that pictures all kinds of information about the wearer, such as hierarchy, commited crimes, etc. When gang or ghetto tattoos are taken out of their context (the gang) they are not the real thing anymore.
Chinese characters are beautiful little pieces of art, exotic and mysterious, and very suitable for a tattoo design.


Find a tattoo artist who has had experience with Chinese character tattoos and can render the writing correctly. There are still tattoo designs that are specific to the different ethnic gangs that operate in the major cities. They indicate for example what status a member has in the group or what a prisoner is in for. Alternatively, a small five pointed star can be found on the hand, between the thumb and first finger. The ink used in Russian prisons for example was made with melted shoe soles, mixed with urine and blood. In China it's trendy nowadays to get an English text tattoo, usually full of spelling mistakes. He found out the truth when he noticed the effect his tattoo had on a woman serving at a Chinese restaurant, who reluctantly translated the tattoo for him. If your word is not in the list below, click here for a Chinese translation (it's also possible to transliterate names into Chinese symbols). Gang and prison 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.
That being said, the art and writing of the traditional Chinese culture have graceful lines which lend themselves perfectly to the art of tattooing.
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