Nothing symbolizes gang members' commitment to their gangs more forcefully than the gang tattoo. These symbols proclaim the individual's allegiance to the group in a way that is both permanent and deeply personal-being written on the body itself. But in recent years, thanks to a combination of social and technological changes, the significance and the permanence of gang tattoos are both being challenged. As a result, it appears that the power of these signifiers has begun to erode.
Tattoos are thought to have existed since the beginning of mankind. The oldest tattoo ever found was on a man frozen in a glacier near Austria who was believed to have died in approximately 4000 B.C. Although it's not known whether the frozen Austrian was a criminal, for most of recorded history tattoos have been associated with unlawful behavior and the underworld.
The early Romans tattooed slaves and criminals as a means of identification. During the years 300-600 C.E. in Japan, criminals were sometimes tattooed as punishment for their crimes. Criminals in the Mediterranean region in the third century C.E. were often tattooed or branded with symbols indicating the crimes they committed; sometimes the victim's name was even emblazoned on the criminal's forehead.
But while society has often imposed tattoos in order to identify the tattooed as criminals, many people have also embraced these stigmatizing marks. Being an outlaw can be a source of pride as well as shame. Gang members in particular take pride in branding themselves as outside of the boundaries of conventional society. Until recently, tattooing was restricted to stigmatized members of society, including gang members, carnival workers and prisoners-categories that often overlapped. It is significant, however, that tattoos were not imposed on these groups, but chosen by them as a means of self-identification and, often, a symbol of belonging.