What Does A Teardrop Tattoo Mean?

A teardrop tattoo is probably one of the most common tattoos that you’ll see with it garnering popularity and notoriety from prison culture and the media. There are various reasons somebody may have this tattoo and numerous famous people have adopted it.

But what does it mean?

Some of the main reasons include:

  • You’ve spent time in prison
  • You were sexually assaulted while incarcerated
  • The loss of a friend or family member
  • You’ve killed someone
  • Attempted murder
  • You sought revenge for the killing of a loved one
  • Some reasons are personal to the wearer
What Does A Teardrop Tattoo Mean img


There are different variants of the tear drop tattoo as well as meanings so let’s have a look at some of them and decipher the purpose and reasoning for them.

Clear Teardrop

A tattoo design that includes a clear teardrop is typically associated with a person that has attempted to kill another person. This tattoo can also signify that a loved one has died, either naturally or as a result of violence. A clear teardrop can indicate that the wearer seeks vengeance.

Left Side Teardrop Tattoo

Initially, for both sides, the teardrop represented that the wearer was ‘owned’ by another inmate in prison. Placed next to the eyes by their ‘owners,’ hiding it was difficult, and it told everyone else about the pain, tears, and humiliation they faced.

Many of these prisoners dealt with rape, extortion, and physical abuse. The amount of care and protection available was almost non-existent. Outside of prison, these men told others that they received it for killing a man in prison, and eventually the meaning shifted.

Over time, the left side teardrop’s meaning changed from being owned to having killed someone in jail. The number of tears represents how many people the wearer ‘killed’. A teardrop tattoo on the left eye has become increasingly popular among gangs and the meaning has become much more fluid, differing between wearers.

Right Side Teardrop Tattoo

As time has passed, the teardrop under the right eye’s meaning has drifted from the original and perceived meaning of teardrop tattoos. These tears placed on the right side, symbolize a lost gang member or family member.

Gangs are almost a second family or for some their only family, and so the death of one of its members equates to the death of a brother or sister.

When you see multiple tears on the right side of someone’s face, it more likely means they lost many people dear to them, rather than that they murdered many people. Women tend to tattoo a teardrop to show solidarity or loyalty to their spouse if they’re imprisoned. Of course, husbands can do the same.

Nowadays, the meaning greatly varies to the point where there is no way of knowing why somebody has the tattoo as some individuals adopt the look for unique reasons that are deeply personal.

Filled-In Teardrop

A teardrop tattoo on the face means that the person has committed murder. A teardrop outline represents attempted murder, but it could also mean that the person has a friend who was murdered and that they are now currently seeking vengeance. A filled-in teardrop could then mean that the death has been avenged.


Why Does Lil Wayne Have A Teardrop Tattoo?

Lil Wayne has inks all over him and many on his face. These include a peace sign, the region of Africa, and the expressions “I Am Music.” He also has the words “Fear God” printed in a script font inked on his eyelids.

Besides this, the rapper has at least 86 tattoos, according to multiple trusted sources all over his body including the famed teardrop tattoo of which he has multiple.

Wayne has said that his teardrop tattoos represent loved ones who have died. They’re somewhat controversial because the teardrop usually represents someone you’ve killed but Wayne has avoided this fact.


History Of Teardrop Tattoos

While the practice is definitely older and has been used throughout modern History, written evidence for the teardrop tattoo comes can be found as early as the 1970s, noted in a New Yorker article about a Mexican gang member who spent time in prison.

Some prisoners drew on the symbolism of a teardrop (grief, pain, sorrow) by getting a small tattoo by the corner of their eyes to show they’ve been incarcerated, it took on the form of a battle scar that garnered respect and induced fear in those who had not experienced prison.

Its negative associations in mainstream culture have also made it problematic for some. In a 2004 court case the defendant, a 17-year- old boy, was found guilty of manslaughter and firearm offenses, prompting a 25-year prison sentence.

He filed for an appeal which was unsuccessful, arguing that he should’ve been able to wear makeup to his trial to cover up his teardrop tattoo, as to avoid the assumptions that come with it. Various services provide removal of the teardrop tattoo, among others, for former gang members and inmates.

Some states even allow for the removal of tattoos on minors if the parents think that it would benefit their child. This is usually used for the removal of gang symbols or what might be considered offensive imagery.


Celebrities With Teardrop Tattoos

Jeremy Meeks – Jeremy Ray Meeks is an American fashion model and former member of the Crips street gang. He is a convicted felon that first came to prominence after his arrest in 2014 during a gang sweep called Operation Ceasefire in Stockton, California.

Due to his time in prison, we can assume the meaning of his teardrop tattoo is related to his time being incarcerated or it could symbolize the loss of one of his former gang members.

Lil Wayne – As we mentioned above Lil Wayne has several teardrop tattoos. Wayne has said that they are a tribute to loved ones he has lost however, others dispute this claim.

Amy Winehouse – Amy Winehouse had a teardrop drawn on her face in eyeliner after her husband Blake entered the Pentonville prison hospital following a suspected drug overdose.

Katy Perry – Katy Perry has a teardrop tattoo on her wrist, it is beside another tattoo of an eye. The meaning for this tattoo differs from the norm, however, as the tattoo is a reference to her album ‘The Witness’.


Tattoos In Prison Culture

In gangs such as the La Nuestra Familia, many tattoos are used to show the rank of an individual. For example, a rose under the eye can signify someone who is new to the gang and needs to prove themselves. Proving yourself in prison is usually done by murdering a rival or in some cases a prison guard.

Now, as you already know the teardrop is the most notorious of all the prison tattoos and can signify incarceration, murder, or loss. Some gang members also use this tattoo under the eye as a sign that they are established and senior members of their gang. In prison, a teardrop will often mean that person should be feared or has standing among others.

The simple star is another symbol that suggests veteran status among the Nuestra Familia gang members and others; depending on where it is positioned on the body it means different things. Worn on the arm or on the body, symbolizes that person’s ‘kill count’ or their rank.

A tattoo that means the same thing and is always placed on the face, is the cross under the left eye. This tattoo also means a high level of commitment to a gang. A gang member with a cross under the eye could be suggesting several things. This can include having spent time in prison, committed a murder, or in some cases, a Christian cross under the eye can symbolize that the tattoo owner is a white supremacist.

The Teardrop Tattoo In Pop Culture

The teardrop tattoo has made a few appearances in pop culture and a few notable celebrities have brought the look into the public eye more and more. One notable appearance is in the 1990 comedy/musical ‘Cry-Baby’ where Johnny Depp plays motorcycle-riding juvenile delinquent and he has a teardrop under his eye.

More recently, the teardrop tattoo as well as tattoos in general have entered the meme scene, with their negative connotations and application into ordinary day situations such as a job interview, often being the root of the joke.


Having A Prison Tattoo In Russia

For thousands of years, tattoos have been used as a way to show rank, accomplishments, or tell a story. This is still the case when you’re behind bars with tattoos holding a great deal of meaning in areas such as South America and most notably Russia where in some cases the wrong tattoo can have fatal consequences.

Russian prison tattoos started in the 19th century when the government began tattooing the phrase “KAT” onto the faces of those convicted of a crime and sent to jail. This slang term was short for the Russian word for criminal and was used to show society that the person wearing the tattoo had been to prison. It marked them as dangerous men and kept them separate from the rest of the residents of Russia.

This, however, led to these criminals growing proud of their labels as they were people to be feared and as time went on they began tattooing themselves with new symbols and words to show the extent of their crimes or sentences.

This tattooing was outlawed but criminals found underground ways of inking themselves while behind bars. If a new inmate came in wearing a certain symbol or word but there was no proof that they had been to prison or committed the crimes the tats claimed then they would be killed on sight.


Frequently Asked Questions

Is it dangerous to get a teardrop tattoo without actually killing someone or joining a gang?

This is one area where ‘cultural appropriation’ may turn out to have dire consequences, due to what the teardrop stands for. Tattoos are a language and many inmates will hold different meanings for prison tattoos in general. Especially in countries like Russia where having the wrong kind of tattoo could get you killed.

What side does a teardrop tattoo go on?

In some instances, it’s said a dominant inmate forces the tattoo on a submissive one after being extorted, abused, or raped as a form of public humiliation. In other instances, wearers use the teardrop tattoo to indicate how many people they’ve killed. This tattoo often appears under the left eye.



In conclusion, the teardrop tattoo has many different meanings and the symbolism has evolved over the past few decades with it still evolving today.

With the potential to mean murder, attempted murder, revenge, loss of a loved one, loyalty, or even much darker connotations such as a mark of shame forcefully inflicted on the tattoo owner.

The teardrop originates from prison but has now been adopted by rappers and other celebrities who have lost loved ones or been involved with gang life.

The meaning to the individual is deeply personal though and if you see someone with a teardrop tattoo it may be worth ensuring you’re good friends with them before asking or avoiding the question altogether. Especially if you find yourself in a prison environment.

So, if you’re thinking of getting a teardrop tattoo have a think about the meaning and also how others may perceive you as there are often misconceptions and assumptions made about the tattoo owner if they are seen with a teardrop.

Stay inked!