To law enforcement officers, gang tattoos are like modern-day hieroglyphics.
Gang detectives study the ink drawings, looking for everything from clues about crime suspects to signs that a youth may be unhappy at home.
"Tattoos are more popular in general, so now you see them even more with gang members," said Officer Richard Duran, a gang expert in the Los Angeles Police Department's Central Division. "Now you see really young kids are more tattooed, like 10-year-olds. That's the current trend."
Some tattoos found on gang members are well-known. Authorities say the symbol of a black hand with a prominent letter M on the palm indicates affiliation with the Mexican Mafia. Three dots in the form of a triangle placed somewhere on the hand mean "Mi Vida Loca" or "My Crazy Life."
Prison towers with clocks or numbers might reflect the years someone was incarcerated or "killing time," said gang Det. De Waine Fields of the LAPD's Hollenbeck Division.
Even seemingly artistic designs can give detectives clues. Women on the neck are "classic gang tattoos," said Det. Gabe Barboza.
Barboza said one neck tattoo popular with gang members is the image of a woman with flowing hair, striking eyes, large breasts and a slim waist. Designs also may cover markings left by drug use, he said.
Duran said gang members used to start getting tattoos in their late teens. In recent years, more have seemed to be getting their first ink markings as preteens, he said.
Tattoos could give parents insight about their children's activities, he said.
"I saw a 12-year-old who had [gang symbols] on the back of her neck, on her elbow and on her stomach," Duran said. "Her mother was oblivious to her being in a gang. I think she was in denial, like most parents."
Authorities said each tattoo can have several meanings. A teardrop near the eye can mean years of hard time in prison or represent fellow gang members who have been killed.
Of course, some tattoos have nothing to do with gangs, and simply being in a gang is not a crime, they said.
"A tattoo [can be] just pride in the neighborhood," Fields said. "I don't automatically think a guy is a gangbanger just because he has tattoos. You have to look at the totality of the circumstances."
Lessons Learned on the Street
Joey, a 25-year-old gang member from the San Fernando Valley who said he's been in and out of prison, said he was 13 when he got his first tattoo. He had long admired gang members with "eye-popping" tattoos on their chests.
The words "Trust No Man" were pricked into his skin to remind him of the first lesson he learned from his mentors. "I still don't trust nobody. Everyone I've trusted has stabbed me in the back," he said. "Not my homies though."
With each passing year, Joey gained tattoos that let him use his body as a canvas to tell his life. Joey says growing up with drug-addicted parents made him turn to friends on the street for support.
"I live life as a warrior because of what I believe in," he said. "I believe in where I'm from. At any moment I'm ready to die for it. That's why I'm all tattooed up, to let everyone know."
Generally, the presence of numerous tattoos representing gang life shows that "the gang is pretty much their whole life," said Thomas Ward, a lecturer of anthropology at USC.
That devotion is a reason tattoos become a form of expression and identity that is irresistible even if gang members know police keep track of them, Ward said.
"They're saying to the world, 'This is who I am.' To the cops they're saying they're down, deeply committed. They're in it for life, and 'There's nothing you can do about it.'" Ward said. "To the rest, they're saying 'I'm a gang member and I am to be feared. If you don't respect me, at least you will fear me.'"
Messages Based on Personal Experience
Many tattoos are based on experiences. The right side of Joey's head has the most personal tattoo on his body. A pair of feminine eyes are crying, with the words "Only God Knows Why" written above the haunting gaze.
"My younger brother was shot in '98. He got shot in Boyle Heights," Joey said. "There were mothers and ladies crying. I know everyone had the same question: 'Why?' That's where I got the idea [for the tattoo]. Only God knows why."
The more distinguishable tattoos help police find suspects, said homicide Det. Rick Peterson. Witnesses are able to remember and identify people more easily when the tattoos are prominent, such as on the face or neck, he said.
Usually hard-core gang members get very visible tattoos, said Father Gregory J. Boyle, director of Homeboy Industries, a jobs program for former and current gang members in Boyle Heights.
Boyle said prominent tattoos on the face may mean the bearers don't care what other people think. They have no feelings about getting arrested for breaking the law, about being identified, about the future, about life, he said.
One gang member once walked into the office with an obscenity tattooed on his forehead.
"He'd effectively given up," Boyle said.
Ward said "[Gang members] with more tattoos can be saying, 'I need help. Rescue me from myself' is the subtext. They could be looking for support."