Getting a tattoo used to be an easy way to get some street cred. The worst that could happen was getting a design you might regret when you were older. Today, getting tattooed is a perfectly normal and socially acceptable thing to do. Whether you’re a chef, an investment banker, or a croupier in a casino, you don’t have to hide your sleeve under long sleeves anymore. Even in a traditionally extremely conservative work environment like the UK police, it’s acceptable to display tattoos. However, tattoos haven’t entirely lost their stigma – depending on the tattoo and the country, you can still get sent down for being inked. Here are five tattoos that could get you into serious trouble.
1. The number
A number of tattoos are Nazi or White Pride symbols. These are banned in European countries like Germany, France and Slovakia. In other countries like the USA and the UK, they are not illegal but could get you ostracised at work, at the very least. The most common one is the number 1488. The number 14 stands for the Aryan Brotherhood’s “14 words” — “we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” – and the 88 stands for HH or “Heil Hitler.” Another symbol is twin lightning bolts representing the lightning bolt runes of the Nazi SS. Less common is the Norse mythological valknut symbol – three interlocking triangles representing the afterlife.
2. Faith gets personal
Tattooed religious symbols can express personal faith but they can also have a darker double meaning. They are also flatly forbidden in certain countries.
Three dots around the eyes can either stand for the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) or they can signify Mexican gang allegiance (“mi vida loca”, “my crazy life”).
In several Asian countries, tattoos of Buddhist symbols are considered to be profoundly disrespectful. Sri Lankan authorities arrested and deported a British tourist with a Buddha tattoo in 2014, charging her with “hurting others’ religious feeling.”
In Muslim-majority Malaysia, tattoos with Islamic iconography or symbols are frowned upon as a sin against God’s creation. Singer Erykah Badu was banned from performing in 2012 because of her “Allah” shoulder tattoo.
3. Colorful criminals
In Japan, tattoos are commonly associated with criminal gangs, so they are often banned in public swimming pools, bath houses, gyms and hotels. Don’t be surprised if your visible tattoos get you turned away from restaurants or shops. The stigma is historical: in the past, the authorities tattooed criminals as a mark of shame; so the Yakuza gangs developed an elaborate tattoo culture in response. Drawing on Japanese culture and religion, Yakuza tattoos include symbols like the Koi, Snake, Phoenix, Dragon, Samurai and Oni demon mask.
4. Teardrop of tragedy
The teardrop tattoo can symbolise different things. It might represent the pain and humiliation of someone who has been “owned” in jail – or it could represent a murder, especially if it’s under the right eye. It could also mean that a loved one has been lost or is doing time. Unless one of these things has happened to you, a teardrop tattoo might get you into trouble with criminals who believe that every tattoo has to be “earned”.
5. Political conviction
Sometimes tattoos can be political – especially for people who believe that it’s their right to display symbols that others condemn as hateful. A good example is the case of Marcel Zech. A member of the far-right German National Democratic Party, Zech was spotted at a swimming pool with a taboo tattoo. The 27-year-old politician’s voluptuous love-handles had a tattoo of a death-camp with the words “Jedem das Seine” (“to each his own”), which appeared on the gate of the Buchenwald death camp. Zech faces up to five years in prison.
Refusal to surgically remove tattoos can also be seen as a form of political protest in Turkey, where tattoos, body piercings, make-up and dyed hair have been banned in schools since 2014.