HNHH examines gang tattoos and their relationship with hip-hop’s ever growing culture of ink.
In recent years, hip-hop artists have become more and more tatted as the trend continues to grow. Once upon a time, the average rapper may have had a few selective tats on their bodies, but it's now a usual sight to see emcees with fully tatted chests, sleeves, backs and even tattoos on the face. Artists such as 50 Cent, Tyga, Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa exhibit this perfectly.
The choice of tattoo images is often personal, but many rappers have been influenced by the symbolic tats prevalent amongst gangs. The relationship between gangs and hip-hop can be traced back to the emergence of the genre - the urban setting, often defined by crime, poverty and the struggle for financial security and survival, has resulted in a strong affiliation with the culture. So it's not completely surprising that rappers may choose to adopt gang tattoos, whether they're directly affiliated or not. We can't ignore the fact that there are probably a good portion of artists who've capitalized on gang culture to strengthen their street image.
Many of the tats we've considered here display messages of strength, bravado, crime, achievement in the streets and identity. Hip-hop artists embody many of these messages, representing a culture that has been responsible for the growth of the genre.
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Having angels wings tattooed on the body has become a popular design in mainstream tattoo culture today. However, in traditional gang culture, they have held the meaning of "sublimity". It also calls to mind the angel Gabriel, who is known in religion for being a messenger of God to the people. Ultimately, if you have this tattoo as a gangster, you're showing that you do not fear death. In hip-hop, Pharrell Williams sports a renaissance-style angel on his neck, whilst the heavily-tatted Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa both have wings across their ribcage.
Skull tattoos have various meanings, and has become highly favorable in many cultures. For gang members, it's often worn by high-ranking members. It can also depict criminal accomplishment. Often, if the member has killed someone, the skull tattoo showcases them as a murderer. Many rappers have had skulls tattooed on them within sleeves, but the late 2Pac Shakur had a standalone skulls and bones image on his right arm.
Gangs are often strong on regional ties and where one was brought up. Tattooing the name of your city remains a popular choice to represent where you're from. Gang members have often not been shy to rep their city, even having their respective cities tattooed on their faces. Since the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop rivalry arose in the mid-nineties, regions have become key. The Game is famous for his "Compton" tattoo across his torso, a place that many gang members represent proudly. 50 Cent had "Southside" tattooed across his back, whilst David Banner has "Mississippi" tattooed across his.
Of course another way to represent your city is to mark yourself up with your area code. Area codes for cities and states have often been used as a method for identifying gangs. Los Angeles' 213 and San Francisco's 415 are quite commonly used. Drake keeps his connection with his native city of Toronto with the 416 code tattooed down his right side. Wiz Khalifa also honors Pittsburgh with 412 across his chest.
This is a very common tattoo seen on gang members in prison. Various interpretations of its meaning exist, but it is mostly known to translate to "mi vida loca" or "my crazy life". The tattoo is often found on the hand or near the eye, which you may have noticed on Lil Wayne and Tyga. The 3 dots tattoo is not connected to any specific gangs, but theories suggest it shows you have earned your place in a gang, whilst others say it has religious connotations of the holy trinity.
A tattoo of playing cards on a gang member can represent someone who likes to gamble, both with cards as well as their lives. Use of the individual suits are also said to have their own meanings – spades being the suit of thieves, clubs being a criminal suit, diamonds being an informant and hearts portraying a sexual symbol. Rapper Nelly sports a tattoo of a deck of cards held by a skeletal hand with his name spelt across them.
Crosses & Crucifixes
Large crosses and crucifixes are extremely popular tattoo choices, meaning different things to different people. The small cross on the head has its own separate meaning, but a crucifix or a cross often across the chest is thought to signify "The Prince Of Thieves". Gangs also tend to have tattoos of a crucified Christ, as inmates often draw comparison between their own experience and the oppression of Jesus. The cross tattoo is a popular choice amongst rappers, seen on 2Pac, Ludacris, YG and many more.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. A tattoo of a crown may often be found on gang leaders who wish to show that they are King. The Latin Kings gang are normally seen with a five-point crown tattoo. Other intricate detailing on the crown can have deeper significance. One of some twenty tattoos on 2Pac's body was a simple crown.
The Spider Web
The spider web tattoo is a very complex design which can have various meanings. A spider at the centre of the web shows that a gang member is committed to a criminal life. A spider that is crawling out of the web can mean that the member is trying to move away from such a lifestyle. Other theories suggest that each web ring represents a year in prison. Dr. Dre made strong statements with his hand tattoos, which had a spider on a web in flames on his left, and spider on fire on his right. It's rumored that he's had them removed, though.
This tattoo is alleged to be specific to the Bloods gang. Anyone with a MOB tattoo is making it known that they are a "Member of Blood". However, there are rappers with this tattoo who have a different interpretation of the abbreviation. Lil Wayne has MOB tattooed across his chest, which he says stands for "Money Over Bitches". 2Pac also had the MOB tattoo, which may very well have stood for the same thing. As for Suge Knight's, some allege his MOB tattoo may ally him with the Bloods.
The Forehead Cross
The forehead cross has different meanings to different people, the most common being a symbol of God. Some theories also suggest that gang members will choose to have a small cross showing they are a convict or have served time in prison. Kevin Gates has his stylized as a star. Amber Rose had her temporary tattoo upside down, which upset people, but it was simply a depiction of the cross of St. Peter, who didn't think he deserved to be crucified.
This tattoo has several meanings. It's mostly known for representing a killer counting his/her victims with every drop. However, it can have mixed representations, as it has also been said to signify losing a friend or a family member. It could mean an individual has done time in jail as well. Amongst hip-hop's foremost artists, Lil Wayne is most famously known for his teardrop tattoo, which can also be seen on The Game, Birdman, Kevin Gates, DUBB and more.