9 Tattoos You Probably Shouldn't Get

Illustrated by Mau Lencinas.
One of the reasons that getting a tattoo comes with a side of edge and an air of badassery is that many badass (or just bad) people used to get them. When gangsters and criminals sat down for a tattoo session, the ink often stood for a badge of dishonor. When they went to prison, they continued to get tattooed, and the symbols developed into a loose underworld code.
Pop culture and media have spread those tattoo images around, exposing a whole new audience of body art collectors to them. But while a certain design may be appropriated by the masses, it still may hold a strong meaning for those who live by the old codes. "I’m more comfortable tattooing things today that I wouldn't have five to 10 years ago, since now you can get almost anything removed with lasers,” says Maxime Buchi, tattoo artist and founder of Sang Bleu London. “But you need to understand that you may to have to answer some questions if you go to the Russian banya.”
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If you dread answering the question, “So, what does your tattoo mean?” (and especially don’t want to get into it with someone in a yellow bandana or a patched-up motorcycle jacket), here are a few to avoid.
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Illustrated by Mau Lencinas.
Russian Prison Ink

Epaulettes on the shoulders, ornate rings on the fingers, stars on the knees — Buchi will do these tattoos on one condition: “I use a style that is not associated with the Russian mafia or criminal organizations, so there will be no question whether it’s related.” He does admit that the era of the heavily-tatted Bratva has faded. “After those Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia books and Eastern Promises came out, these tattoos became really popular,” agrees tattoo artist Jack Watts of Sang Bleu London.

The new generation of Russian gangsters, “don't care about tattoos, so it doesn't mean the same thing,” says Buchi. But heads up if you’re ever approached by an old, shirtless dude with a Stalin chest piece.
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Illustrated by Mau Lencinas.
Spiderweb

Need to fill an empty spot on your sleeve? Since Guy Fieri ruined the flamejob, a spiderweb on the elbow or shoulder cap has seemed more appealing. A little history, though: The spiderweb is seen as traditional, mostly because of its longtime association with prison. Originally, it represented time served — cobwebs formed during long hours wasting away in a cell. The web can indicate being “caught” by the law or being "caught in the web" of gang life (the latter sounds like something you’d tell your parole officer).

Most people don’t make this association anymore, but you don’t want to run into the person who does. Unless he’s your hard-living uncle who only shows up once every five Thanksgivings — that guy’s all right.
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Illustrated by Mau Lencinas.
Teardrops

Teardrops tattooed at the corner of the eye are generally associated with gang life, in which drops can represent a variety of things: a person you’ve killed (particularly when the drops are filled in), a lost family member or friend, jail time served, or a symbol of grief. Remember when Amy Winehouse drew a teardrop on her face when husband Blake Fielder-Civil was jailed during her 2007 U.K. tour?

Teardrop tats were popularized by Cheech-and-Chong-era cholos, Johnny Depp in Crybaby, and, more recently, a bunch of hip-hop artists, including Lil Wayne, The Game, and Birdman.
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Illustrated by Mau Lencinas.
5-Point Crown

You might think getting a tattoo of a crown with gemstones says “Princess,” but before you go under the needle, you’re going to want to count those spikes. In some circles, a crown with five points is also the symbol of the Latin Kings. Based out of Chicago, with members everywhere, they’re one of the biggest gangs / civic organizations in the country.

The letters ALKN are usually found nearby (Almighty Latin Kings Nation), so if those are the initials of you and your beloved, for God’s sake, don’t get them too. If you have a crown tattoo and someone says, “Amor de Rey,” they’re not asking you if you like Lana; it’s the Latin King greeting.
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Illustrated by Mau Lencinas.
Dot Clusters

Dots are the hesitation marks of stick-and-poke tattoo, a pared-down style that’s gotten super-popular lately. Put a few together, and now you’re sending subculture signals: Three dots in a triangle (as currently seen on Lil Wayne and Tyga) is a common motif usually found on hands and around the eye that once signified gang life, or “mi vida loca.”

The quincunx, or five dots arranged like they are on a playing die, is usually found on the webbed part of the hand and represents time served in prison.
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Illustrated by Mau Lencinas.
Hells Angels Death Head

Skulls are cool. Flying skulls are even cooler. The Death Head skull with the wings is the Hells Angels official insignia, and you do not want to be wearing it when active members of the motorcycle club are around. Because if they don’t beat you up or remove it for you, they just might sue you. After all, they’ve sued Toys R Us, MTV, Alexander McQueen, Saks, Zappos, Disney, and Young Jeezy.
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Illustrated by Mau Lencinas.
Numbers

Penelope Cruz has 883 on her ankle. Evan Rachel Wood has 15 behind her ear. Zoe Kravitz has a 5 on her wrist. Numbers mean different things to different people — a wedding date, special birthday, a remembrance for a lost friend, or what California area code you rep.

Dangerous people also love number tattoos. For example, the notorious 18th Street gang uses 18. MS-13 and the Surenos share the number 13 with everyone who has ever gotten one of those $25 Friday the 13th specials at a tattoo shop.

White-power skinheads (as well as regular racists with hair) often sport 88 and 14. The first represents H, the eighth letter of the alphabet; HH stands for Heil Hitler. The second is the number of words in a really un-catchy mantra by neo-nazi David Lane, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."

One more tip: Shamrocks and the number 666 don’t mix. It’s the symbol for the Aryan Brotherhood.
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Illustrated by Mau Lencinas.
Swastikas

In ancient Sanskrit, the swastika was a symbol that meant “well-being.” In fact, it was a good luck marking by a surprising number of groups, including Ancient Greeks, Anglo Saxons, Odinists, Hindus, Buddhists, and members of the Jain faith. Not so long ago (into the 1930s), Coca-Cola and Carlsberg used it to market beverages. The Boy Scouts used it, and the Girls' Club of America had a magazine called Swastika.

Hitler rained on that parade. The symbol has been corrupted, and many tattoo artists won’t ink it anymore, even if they do know its original intent. When a client asked Barry “Baz” Shailes of Clash City Tattoo in NYC for “a Buddhist symbol to bring him luck,” he had to take the hard line. “I explained that if he tried to educate strangers about the mystical origins of the swastika and his reasons for getting it, he’d likely be drowned out by chants of, 'Nazi! Racist!' and 'Scumbag!' as he was being severely beaten.”
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Illustrated by Mau Lencinas.
Face Tattoos

Though face tattoos aren’t uncommon anymore (Mike Tyson’s tribal piece, Gucci Mane’s ice cream cone, model Vin Los’ word jumble), they’re certainly not mainstream. One reason is tattoo artists are reluctant to do them on clients who aren’t already covered in body art.

It’s not about adhering to a criminal code or making a moral judgement, artists say; it’s about “having respect for the traditions that mean something to tattooers, such as not getting your hands, neck, or face done before you have a chance to earn it,” says Buchi, who recently turned away a young client for just that reason. “He had wanted work all around his eyes for while, but he didn't have much else tattooed on his body. We negotiated, but at the end of the day I didn't do it. I didn't want to feel responsible for how that kid will be treated and perceived, and the ways it will affect his life. He doesn't understand that yet.”

Tattoo artist and makeup brand founder Kat Von D was well aware of the ramifications, and described the stars around her eyes to Yahoo as "a symbol of being able to be heavily tattooed and still carry yourself in a feminine way."

So the lesson of the day, kids, is just because you can put a design on your body doesn't necessarily mean that you should. In other words: Think before you ink.
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