March 4, 2015 | 5 Comments

Teardrop Tattoo (Various designers)

From the curators: In his 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime,” early-20th-century Viennese architect Adolf Loos infamously–and incorrectly–labeled tattoo design the preserve of criminals and so-called degenerates, an opinion that willfully ignores the rich social and aesthetic history of the tattoo for many individuals and cultures across the globe. However, like most fields of design, certain aspects of the practice of tattooing intersect with violence, perhaps most incontrovertibly in the case of the teardrop tattoo. Although they help shape self- and group identities, tattoos can often remain hidden from sight under clothing. However, there is almost no way to conceal a design inked near the eye, highlighting the deliberately public declaration a teardrop tattoo constitutes. Teardrop designs are as varied as the artists who render the pigment under the skin, and their meaning is contested—depending on factors like the geographic location or personal experiences of the wearer. Interpretations range from the oft-repeated inference that, for those tattooed in prison, one tear equals one life taken, to the opposite end of the spectrum, where the teardrop may demarcate a victim of violence—sometimes within the confines of prison walls, and sometimes on the outside—or someone who stands in solidarity with a loved one who has experienced violence.

The teardrop tattoo is the kind of overtly dramatic tattoo that squares like to imbue with meaning. Gang cops posing as public speakers proselytize about secret meanings to this and other tattoos. Their information is skewed, as most convicts or gang bangers will just clown a cop if he is getting interviewed about this stuff. Now I’m going to lay it down as I understand it. You dig?

Where this tattoo originated I do not know. I would venture to guess inmates on Devil’s Island were decorating each others’ cheekbones. In my frame of reference, postwar California prison style (which in the jailhouse tattoo world is like Florence during the Renaissance), the teardrop tattoo can mean a couple of things. The first thing I heard was that one teardrop meant you had done time, usually at least one year. Some people say that a teardrop means that you killed someone. I think one of the reasons for the proliferation of teardrops is that they are a breeze to draw or hand poke. This is one of the reasons that it seems so popular among the youth authority set. In this, the age of overkill, kids getting out of YA are likely to have numerous teardrops. If one teardrop is tough, how tough would you be with five or seven?

Even 20 years ago facial tattoos were a rarity (even in the barrio). Now it is not unusual to see gang names, area codes, and almost anything on the face. I remember a homie of mine showing me a picture of his dad with a ’54 Chevy on his cheek, under his teardrop. In 1984 this was pretty shocking.

As the world becomes smaller and prisons more overcrowded (and therefore more vicious), vatos in Soledad or Susanville will do time with guys who have done time on the East Coast or Midwest, and this is where things get complicated. Some sets on the east coast look at at the teardrop as a victim’s tattoo, not a victimizer’s. I think this viewpoint is rubbing off, as in “quit your crying” kind of thinking. Sadly that romantic Oldies-but-Goodies lonely Latin lover pining for his hyna is dying. Now it’s more smile now, less crying later.

Tattoos and their meanings are more in the arena of sociology. In the tattoo shop we spend very little time on deep meanings and such. Me personally, I am more of an aesthete and I think teardrop tattoos look cool, and that’s all that really matters.


What is more violent--a teardrop tattoo or a stereotyped gaze?

  1. March 5, 2015, 8:59 pm

    Cecelia Flores

    former YA employee

    Seemed to me the teardrop tattoo meant something different to each generation of a young homie.

    Oh, and i love it when the vato is playing a tapado.

  2. September 12, 2015, 4:10 pm


    It could mean you're a sad clown

  3. September 18, 2015, 2:28 pm


    Such an interesting topic. John Irving’s book “Until I Find You” addresses related issues in poignant ways.

  4. March 11, 2017, 2:01 pm


    why can i still comment on this even though the “exhibition” is over?

  5. May 6, 2017, 8:59 am


    Tear drop tattoo

    I have had a rough life lost my dad at 13 then lost a niece I got married we bought a house then 3months later the foundation caved in due to a lot of rain insurance of course wouldn’t cover it then few months later lost my dear dear father in law then after 19yrs of marriage I lost that life so trying to pull myself together my mom was diagnosed with cancer so I moved in and took care of her till I lost her in 2010 now I been thinking of getting and want a tear drop tattoo to symbolize all my loss and tears that I shed even though all those tears are better now I still mourn inside and the tear is also for all my loved ones to know I will always shed a tear is