Laura McKee, our NLEM Graphics Imaging Project Intern, is a student in the graduate museum studies program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. She is currently interning with the National Law Enforcement Museum to learn how to catalogue and write about artifacts.

To say that something or someone is “history” is usually a sign of disrespect. However, at the National Law Enforcement Museum, historical artifacts have a significance in American culture that can flow seamlessly into the present and even into the future.

Cover of Prison Gang Tattoos booklet by Criminal Intelligence Service, Texas Department of Public Safety. Simple white cover with lettering in blue.
Prison Gang Tattoos Booklet, ca. 1980s. 2008.70.11. Collection of the NLEM, Washington, DC. (all images)

Nuestra Familia gang tattoos. Side view of butterfly, dagger with sombrero sitting on top, bandito wearing sombrero and two bandoliers strung over his chest holding shotgun in left hand.Take, for example, the small, soft-cover handbook of prison gang tattoos (circa 1980s) published by the Crime Analysis Section of the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Criminal Intelligence Service. Despite its modest appearance and low production values by today’s standards, this little booklet provides a fascinating glimpse into the dark, often-obscure world of prisoner identity politics. It has a glossary of “gang slang” and descriptive summaries of violent prison gangs ranging from the American Nazi Party and the Mexican Mafia to the Mandingo Warriors. It’s also filled with illustration after illustration of tattoos, some with text and some without, but each evidencing a rich imagery and symbolism that can be linked directly to the probable criminal activities and ideologies of certain inmates.

Nuestra Familia gang tattoos. Overlapping N and F in Gothic font, Mongolian with earring in left ear, stylized eagle with outstretched wings colored black.Why is this handbook important? Its place in the past, in the history of law enforcement, is indisputable—Texas authorities used it to discharge their duty to protect and serve civilians, to identify gang members, and to map their potential behavior both in and out of prison. But what about this artifact’s relevance, almost three decades later, to current cultural trends and security concerns? Today, 24% of Americans aged 18-50 years have one or more tattoos. Among Americans aged 18 to 29, the rate goes up to 36%. Those statistics, taken by themselves, are innocuous; however, they become meaningful when they intersect with the fact that there are now over 2.4 million people incarcerated in the United States.

In this light, the prison gang tattoo emerges as a long-standing indicator of separateness from the American mainstream, a continuously reliable mark of social deviance. It would also be interesting to ascertain if the twentieth-century tattoos in the booklet are similar or identical to the tattoos worn by present-day prisoners. Do you or somebody you know have experience working with prison gang members? Or have an interest in this critical aspect of the exploding phenomenon of U.S. prison gang membership? Tell us what you think!

Image of watermelon slice with five seeds in half circle above slice, tattoo used by Mandingo Warriors gang, from Prison Gang Tattoos booklet