Teardrop Tattoo Meaning: Unraveling the Symbolism and Origins

Teardrop tattoos, small tattoo designs placed near one or both eyes, are symbols with a long history and complex meanings. These tattoos are closely associated with prison and gang culture and may carry various interpretations depending on the context. Though some people might have such tattoos to represent sorrow or loss, their significance within criminal environments often implies a more nuanced explanation.

water drop on a feather

Over the years, the meaning of a teardrop tattoo has evolved, with earlier interpretations suggesting it was a mark showing that a person had killed another person, lost a loved one, or been raped in prison. However, regional variations in meaning have arisen, including some denoting lengthy prison sentences or even attempted murder. It is crucial to be aware of these diverse meanings in order to fully comprehend the ever-changing symbolism and significance of teardrop tattoos in society.

Key Takeaways

  • Teardrop tattoos carry various meanings, including criminal affiliations, personal loss, and emotional expressions
  • Interpretations of teardrop tattoos can vary depending on geographic location and individual circumstances
  • Teardrop tattoos have evolved in meaning and significance over time, reflecting the complexity of their association with prison and gang culture

Teardrop Tattoo and Prison Culture

Prison Tattoos

Teardrop tattoos are a well-known symbol strongly associated with prison and gang culture. Within the context of prisons, tattoos are often used as a way for inmates to communicate their history, affiliations, and experiences. The teardrop tattoo is one of the most widely recognized prison tattoos and carries a range of meanings, depending on the geographical location.


For some inmates, a teardrop tattoo can signify a lengthy prison sentence. In other cases, it may indicate that the bearer has committed murder. The teardrop outline, on the other hand, might symbolize attempted murder. Apart from serving time or the nature of a crime, a teardrop tattoo can also represent sorrow or loss.

Tattoo Design

The teardrop tattoo design varies slightly between individuals but generally consists of a small tear-shaped ink mark, placed directly underneath one or both eyes. The filled or outlined nature of the teardrop can carry different meanings, as mentioned in the Inmates section.

Stick-and-Poke Method

In prison settings, tattoos are often applied through a stick-and-poke method. This technique involves using a needle to manually inject ink into the skin, rather than employing a professional tattoo machine. The stick-and-poke method is commonly used within prisons as it can be executed using easily accessible materials like pen ink and sewing needles. However, it is important to note that this method poses a higher risk of infection compared to professional tattooing.

Gang Culture

Teardrop tattoos are also associated with gang affiliations, as they can signify a member’s criminal activities or personal experiences. These tattoos act as markers for gang members, allowing them to identify each other and forge a sense of camaraderie. In this context, the teardrop tattoo carries a strong cultural significance, often reflecting the violent and challenging circumstances faced by individuals involved in gang activity.

Core Symbolism of Teardrop Tattoo

Grief and Loss

A teardrop tattoo is often used to represent grief and loss, as the teardrop is a universal symbol of sadness. People may get such a tattoo to honor the memory of a loved one who has passed away, symbolizing the deep pain and mourning they feel. It serves as a permanent tribute to the impact the departed soul had on their lives, reflecting the devotion and respect they have for their lost loved ones.

Murder and Violence

In gang and prison culture, a teardrop tattoo can signify a more violent meaning, such as serving time in prison or being involved in murder. The tattoo is a visual representation of one’s criminal history or involvement in violent acts. It is important to note, however, that the meaning of a teardrop tattoo can vary from person to person, and some may get the tattoo for reasons unrelated to violence or crime.

Solidarity and Love

Another interpretation of the teardrop tattoo is that of solidarity and love. In some cases, individuals may get a teardrop tattoo to show their devotion to a particular group, cause, or loved one. This act of love and commitment can symbolize the powerful bond and unwavering support they have for what they believe in, even in the face of struggle and hardship.

Strength and Resilience

In some instances, the teardrop tattoo can represent strength and resilience, symbolizing a personal journey or a difficult period in one’s life. This interpretation focuses on the idea that the individual has overcome adversity and come out of the experience stronger and wiser. By getting a teardrop tattoo, they are reminding themselves of the challenges they have faced and the strength they have gained in the process.

History and Origins

Criminal History

The teardrop tattoo has a deep connection to prison and gang culture. Dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, the tattoo was used by gangs to represent their members’ achievements. Placed under the eye, each teardrop signified a murder or a death witnessed or committed by the gang member. Apart from symbolizing murders, the tattoo also indicated that a person had served time in prison, been humiliated, or lost a loved one. In some cases, the teardrop marked inmates as the property of another person, signifying submission and humiliation.

Cultural Significance

Although the teardrop tattoo has its roots in criminal activities and prison culture, it has evolved into a more diverse symbol with various meanings. Nowadays, some people choose to get the teardrop tattoo to represent sorrow or loss, divorcing the symbol from its criminal associations. While the tattoo still carries the weight of its dark origins, it has been incorporated into a broader context of body art and self-expression. It’s important to recognize that the teardrop tattoo’s meaning is not solely confined to its criminal background, but can also symbolize personal hardship or emotional pain.

Teardrop Tattoo Variations

Placement and Size

Teardrop tattoos are traditionally small in size and placed under one or both eyes. Their placement on the face, specifically under the eye, signifies different meanings depending on the context. In prison and gang culture, these tattoos often indicate one’s criminal history, such as time served, humiliations endured, or the number of killings committed by the bearer. On the other hand, teardrop tattoos can represent sorrow, loss, or mourning for a loved one in various cultures.

The teardrop’s small size allows for easy concealment if necessary, or it can be incorporated into larger tattoo designs to create a more detailed or personalized symbol.

Colors and Combinations

The classic teardrop tattoo is typically done in black ink, but it can also be found in various colors, each carrying its own symbolism. For example, the color red may represent a member of a specific gang, while blue could symbolize loyalty or affiliation with another group.

Bold colors like green and purple can be used to make the teardrop tattoo stand out, or softer shades can be chosen for a subtler look. It’s essential to research color meanings within specific cultures or subcultures to accurately represent one’s intent with the teardrop tattoo design.

In addition to color variations, the teardrop tattoo can be combined with other symbols to create unique and personal designs. These combinations can enhance the intended meaning or add layers of symbolism to the tattoo.

For instance, a teardrop tattoo can be combined with:

  • Skulls: To symbolize the death of a loved one or a reminder of one’s mortality.
  • Flowers: To represent growth, renewal, or the life cycle.
  • Clocks or Hourglasses: To emphasize the passage of time or the feeling of loss associated with time slipping away.

When choosing a teardrop tattoo design, one must consider factors such as placement, size, color, and additional symbols to best convey the intended meaning. These variations offer versatility to this classic tattoo design, allowing it to be customized to fit each individual’s story and experience.

Understanding Different Meanings

Gang-Related Meanings

Teardrop tattoos, often placed near the eyes, are closely associated with gang culture. Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), a notorious international gang, uses these tattoos to represent their affiliation or to mark a significant event within the gang. For some members, the teardrop may symbolize the loss of a fellow gang member or the act of taking a life. Similarly, other gangs like the Crips or Bloods may use teardrop tattoos to showcase loyalty or remorse. Musicians like Lil Wayne and Amy Winehouse have also been seen sporting teardrop tattoos, sparking curiosity about their possible connections to gang life.

Prison Sentence Meanings

In the context of prison culture, the teardrop tattoo carries various meanings, depending on the wearer’s location and experiences. A common interpretation is that the tattoo signifies a lengthy prison sentence or the wearer’s time served in prison, during which they might have been a victim of abuse. Outlined teardrops sometimes indicate that the individual has been charged with attempted murder, while filled-in teardrops suggest that the person was charged with a degree of murder and is possibly serving a life sentence.

Personal Struggle Meanings

Not all teardrop tattoos are associated with criminal activity or gang affiliation. Some individuals choose to get a teardrop tattoo as a symbol of personal struggle, sorrow or loss. For example, the tattoo could represent the loss of a loved one or a traumatic life event. In these cases, the teardrop tattoo serves as a reminder or a tribute, providing the wearer with a sense of connection to their past or a motivator in moving forward.

Misconceptions and Controversies

Negative Connotations

Teardrop tattoos are often associated with gang and prison culture, as well as negative connotations and criminal activity. Some people believe that teardrop tattoos signify that the person has served time in prison or has committed a crime like murder. However, the meaning of a teardrop tattoo can vary depending on the individual and their personal experiences.

While it is true that some individuals with a teardrop tattoo may have a criminal history, this should not be generalized to everyone who decides to get this design. In fact, teardrop tattoos can also symbolize deep remorse or regret, or represent the loss of a loved one, a fellow prisoner, or a close friend. The tattoo’s location may also play a role in determining its meaning as different locations can carry different symbolism.

Public Humiliation

One of the more disturbing misconceptions is that the teardrop tattoo was given as a form of public humiliation, depicting that the person has been subjected to some sort of disgraceful situation. There is little concrete evidence to support this claim, and it is important to recognize that tattoos, including teardrop designs, often have personal and unique meanings for the individual sporting them.

Moreover, despite the controversies and misconceptions that surround teardrop tattoos, many people still choose to get them as a form of art, self-expression, or as a symbol of overcoming personal hardships. It is crucial to avoid making generalized assumptions about people simply based on their tattoos, as doing so can contribute to further stigmatization and misunderstanding.

Teardrop Tattoo in Celebrity Culture

Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp, a well-known actor, has a teardrop tattoo on his face. While the tattoo is often associated with criminal activity or personal loss, Depp’s teardrop is inked with different intentions. In his case, it is a symbol dedicated to his friends who passed away. It demonstrates how the meaning of a teardrop tattoo can diverge from its traditional connotations.

Amy Winehouse

The late singer Amy Winehouse also sported a teardrop tattoo, but it was not linked to any gang activity or criminal past. Instead, it represented her sorrow and the challenges she faced in her personal life. Winehouse’s teardrop tattoo highlights the shift of this symbol in popular culture, showing that it can be interpreted as an expression of grief and personal struggle rather than its original associations with criminality.

Lil Wayne

Rapper Lil Wayne is another celebrity who has a teardrop tattoo on his face. Though some may assume it symbolizes a connection to gang culture, Lil Wayne has explained that the tattoo represents the deaths of loved ones. In his case, the teardrop tattoos do not indicate criminal activity or affiliation with gangs. Instead, they serve as a reminder of the pain and loss he has experienced.

In recent years, the teardrop tattoo has become more prevalent in pop culture as celebrities like Johnny Depp, Amy Winehouse, and Lil Wayne adopt the symbol for their personal reasons. As a result, the teardrop tattoo’s meaning has evolved, transcending its traditional associations with gang culture and violence. While it once carried a strictly criminal or violent connotation, it has become a more versatile symbol used by various individuals, even in the celebrity world, to express personal emotions and experiences.

Emotional Significance

Tribute to Lost Loved Ones

A teardrop tattoo often symbolizes the loss of a loved one, specifically family or friends. The tattoo represents the emotional significance of the individual’s passing and serves as a tribute to their memory. It can be a form of mourning or a way to express the deep sense of loss that the person feels, indicating that the memory of their loved one will remain with them forever.

Personal Strength and Courage

Another meaning behind the teardrop tattoo is a symbol of personal strength and courage. The tattoo can signify a personal struggle that the person has overcome, symbolizing resilience and determination. It can also represent a challenging period in one’s life that they have emerged from stronger and wiser. In this context, the teardrop tattoo celebrates the individual’s personal growth and ability to bounce back from adversity.


In some cases, a teardrop tattoo is a representation of loyalty, especially in the context of prison or gang culture. The teardrop tattoo might indicate loyalty to a particular gang, group, or cause. It often serves as a badge of honor and demonstrates the individual’s commitment to their chosen allegiance. This sense of loyalty could also extend to personal relationships, symbolizing devotion and dedication to the person who the teardrop represents.

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