Police in Honduras say they have decoded the symbolic meanings of common tattoos used by the country’s “mara” street gangs, although gang members have increasingly hidden these displays of affiliation from view as a reaction to hardline security measures.
Gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 have become renowned for their extravagant tattoos throughout the “Northern Triangle” countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as in the United States.
Honduran newspaper El Heraldo consulted an expert on gang communication to get a breakdown of the meanings of the most common tattoos, which police have reportedly deciphered as a result of investigations.
Hands clasped together in prayer (see right) are use to express the phrase “forgive me mother for my crazy life,” according to the expert consulted by El Heraldo. This implies contemplation and regret for the things they have done, but recognition that they cannot leave behind the gang life or their mother may be killed in retaliation.
According to El Heraldo, the traditional Chinese symbol for the complementary balancing of opposing or contrary forces has been co-opted by gangs, who use it as an expression of how they have gone beyond traditional understandings of the balance between good and evil through violence and death.
Spider web tattoos (see left) are commonly found on shoulders, knees and visible parts of the body, and represent power and expansion.
Barbed wire tattoos are often done on curved parts of the body and represent submission and slavery to the gang life and an awareness of how they are indoctrinated in gang values.
Three points positioned in a triangle mean “my crazy life,” a phrase used by gang members to describe outlaw gang life.
Virgin of Guadalupe
Especially popular with Barrio 18 gang members — whose founders are of Mexican origin — Virgin of Guadalupe tattoos are an appeal to a higher power for protection.
Tattoos of Christ (see right) are especially popular with the MS13, who work the letters M and S into the image.
InSight Crime Analysis
Since their formation, gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 have used tattoos as a means of building social identity, displaying allegiance and sending messages.
SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 Profile
However, the prominent display of such tattoos is no longer common practice, with gangsters now tattooing in parts of the body concealed by clothing or not at all. In Honduras, this is a result of a 2005 hardline anti-gang law that criminalized being a gang member, leading gang leaders to order an end to the once compulsory tattooing and warning members to avoid outward displays of affiliation, such as tattoos and gang-associated clothing.