The Hidden Meanings Behind 11 Prison Tattoos

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While tattoos might be becoming as popular as pierced ears—in fact, Whole Foods might soon offer inking services—there are still certain ones reserved for select members of society. Jailhouse tattoos, also known as black-and-grays, are dangerous in more than one way: The process is illegal, so inmates end up creating their own equipment and ink, and studies have shown a connection between tattoos and high rates of hepatitis C among prisoners.

You won’t find any butterflies, tribal armbands, or wrongly interpreted Chinese characters here. Check out the hidden meanings behind these 11 prison tattoos.

1. TEAR DROP

Perhaps the most well-known tattoo associated with crime and prison, the teardrop can either be unfilled or opaque. There are many stories about why a prisoner would have this tattoo, but the most common is that an unfilled teardrop might symbolize the death of a loved one, while an opaque one might show that the death has been avenged. "Sometimes," the FBI notes, "only the wearer will know the exact meaning of the tattoo.” Teardrops might also represent mourning in general. For instance, Amy Winehouse’s were said to be for her jailed ex-husband.

2. CLOCK WITH NO HANDS

Such an emblem denotes “doing time” for long-time prisoners. Variations include a watch with no hands and an hourglass.

3. SPIDERWEB

Emblazoned on the elbow, the spiderweb conveys the idea of being trapped, as well as perhaps the cobwebby passage of time.

4. BORSTAL MARK

A blue dot on the face, the borstal mark, also known as the borstalspot, proclaims a stint in a borstal, a UK system for delinquent boys that was created in 1902. Borstals offered education, meals, and regimentation—kind of like what Americans call juvie mixed with military school. But since borstals were abolished in the early 1980s, anyone who has a mark these days is more likely a person who wasn't locked up in one but just wants to seem tough.

5. ACAB

The ACAB tattoo might be represented by four dots on the knuckles or the letters themselves on the knuckles or elsewhere. The acronym stands for All Coppers Are Bastards, or perhaps, depending on the situation, Always Carry a Bible.

6. EWMN

This acronym isn’t necessarily specific to prison. Popular among biker gang members, it’s not surprising that the Evil Wicked Mean Nasty mark would make an appearance behind bars.

7. AB

If the AB tattoo bearer tells you the letters stand for “Alice Baker,” you’ll want to stay clear: That's just a nickname for the Aryan Brotherhood. The white supremacist organization’s other nicknames include Alice, One-Two, Tip and Brand, and the Brand.

8. THREE DOTS

The three dots tattoo can appear under the eye or on the hand, and can represent, among Latinos, either the three words mi vida loca, “my crazy life,” or the holy Catholic trinity. Cultural anthropologist Margo DeMello says that the three dots might come from a French criminal tattoo, of which the trio of spots stood for mort aux vaches, or “death to the cows”—cows meaning the police.

9FIVE DOTS

Five dots have a different meaning. Often associated with Russian prisoners, a quincunx on the wrist suggests a convict (the center dot) surrounded by four watchtowers (the surrounding four dots). Of course, a quincunx tattoo isn't always a sign of a stay in prison; Thomas Edison had one on his forearm.

10. GRIN

Another ink job popular among Russian inmates is the grin. A flagrant sign of disrespect, grins often portray Russian and Soviet leaders in bawdy or crude positions, and imply that the prisoners, often locked up for the long haul, don’t give a flying fig about what authorities think.

11. KNIFE THROUGH THE NECK

If you think the guy with the knife through the neck tattoo looks dangerous, you’d be right: In Russian prisons, such a symbol shows the bearer is a murderer. And proud of it, evidently.

11 Everyday Tasks That Are Tricky for Left Handers

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iStock

In Medieval times, left-handed people had more to worry about than smudging their own handwriting: Being a lefty was associated with demonic possession. While those with southpaw tendencies aren't likely to be labeled as the devil's puppet today, life for those in that 10 percent of the population can still be a struggle. In honor of International Left Handers Day, check out some common tasks that lefties rarely get right.

1. USING SCISSORS

Unless you special-order left-handed scissors, the act of cutting up paper can quickly become an exercise in frustration. Scissors typically have blades with distinct handles, including one for the thumb—a lefty’s thumb will usually get stuck in the finger hole because they’re holding it upside-down. Fortunately, most operating rooms are equipped with scissors for both hands.

2. WRITING

A spiral notebook poses problems for a left-handed writer
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Because a lefty’s hand is running through everything being written, signatures, notes, and other scribblings often turn into a smeared mess. Writing in three-ringed binders or notebooks is even worse, since the spine makes it difficult to rest your hand against a smooth surface. The worst part? Gripping the pen cap with your left hand forces it to loosen up, making for a writing utensil that comes apart while you’re trying to use it.

3. HAVING DINNER COMPANY

If you know anyone who prefers to eat alone, ask about their dominant hand. It might be because using their left arm to dig into food means engaging in a constant battle for table real estate with a person on their left who is eating with their right arm. It also means their drinking glasses will be parked next to one another, with spillage always a looming threat.

4. WALKING

A man walks along a stretch of road
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Even sober, a lefty’s locomotion is affected. Why? Because when they cross paths with someone walking in the opposite direction, both tend to lean into their dominant side—putting them in front of each other yet again.

5. BANKING

To make sure their pens don’t wind up lost or stolen, most banks will tether them to a flimsy chain on the table. It’s non-invasive for right-handed people, but lefties are forced to try to sign checks with a chain constantly pulling against their hand movement.

6. PUTTING ON CLOTHES

A jeans zipper appears on the right side
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The fly on jeans, zippered coats, and other apparel usually opens on the right side, creating a barrier of entry for lefties. Buttons escalate the difficulty. Some women’s clothing reverses this, putting closures on the left. The tradition is thought to have started when servants would dress their charges in the Victorian era: Left-sided buttons would be to their right.

7. USING CELL PHONES

Although Apple is a prime culprit, many cell phones can be problematic for lefties. For one thing, cradling the device with your left hand can sometimes obscure the antenna, affecting reception. For another, control blocks can default to the right side in landscape mode, putting them out of reach.

8. MEASURING FOOD INGREDIENTS

A measuring cup that looks to be designed for right-handed use
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Glass or plastic measuring cups frequently print serving amounts to the left of the handle, meaning lefties who pour with their left and hold the cup with their right will either see nothing at all or the metric system side. 

9. HYDRATING AND DRIVING

Most lefties get used to shifting with their right hand, but it’s still awkward to try and fetch a (non-alcoholic) drink from the cup holder on the right side of the driver’s seat.

10. OPENING CANS

A can opener made for right-handed use
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Manual can openers favor right-handed operation, meaning lefties are forced to either obscure the knob with their left or move in the opposite direction. (Pull-tab cans have saved the sanity of many a lefty.) The same holds true for potato peelers, which are engineered for the right-handed majority. Fortunately, a few stores sell mirror-imaged kitchen tools.

11. PAINTING NAILS

Most day-to-day tasks can be modified or at least tolerated by lefties, but those who opt to paint their nails find that their left hand winds up a mess. The same is true for right-handed people, too—all the better to give them a taste of lefty life.

11 Sharp Facts About Annie Oakley

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Getty

You probably know that Annie Oakley was an outstanding sharpshooter who became famous while performing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. But if your knowledge of her life is limited to Annie Get Your Gun, we’ve got you covered. In honor of her birthday, here are 11 facts about Oakley, the Little Sure Shot of the Wild West.

1. SHE MADE HER FIRST SHOT AT 8 YEARS OLD.

Born on August 13, 1860 in a rural part of western Ohio, Phoebe Ann Moses grew up poor. Her father’s death in 1866 meant that she had to contribute to help her family survive, so she trapped small animals such as quail for food. At eight years old, she made her first shot when she killed a squirrel outside her house. “It was a wonderful shot, going right through the head from side to side. My mother was so frightened when she learned that I had taken down the loaded gun and shot it that I was forbidden to touch it again for eight months,” she later said.

2. SHE USED HER SHOOTING SKILLS TO PAY OFF HER MOM’S MORTGAGE.

Despite Oakley’s top-notch shooting skills, her widowed mother struggled to make ends meet. She sent Oakley to work for another family in exchange for her daughter getting an education. As a teenager, Oakley returned home (after working as a servant for an abusive family) and continued to hunt animals. She sold the meat to an Ohio grocery store, earning enough money to pay her mom’s $200 mortgage. She later wrote: "Oh, how my heart leaped with joy as I handed the money to mother and told her that I had saved enough to pay it off!"

3. SHE BEAT HER FUTURE HUSBAND IN A SHOOTING MATCH.

At 15 years old, Oakley participated in a shooting match on Thanksgiving with Frank Butler, an Irish-American professional marksman. The match, which happened in Cincinnati, was a doozy. To Butler’s surprise, the teenage girl outshot him by one clay pigeon, and he lost the $100 bet he had placed. Rather than feel embarrassed or emasculated by his loss, Butler was impressed and interested, and the two married the following year.

4. DESPITE HER PROFESSION, SHE EMPHASIZED HER FEMININITY.


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At the end of the 19th century, shooting was a predominantly male activity, and Oakley certainly stood out. But rather than dress or behave like a man to fit in, she emphasized her femininity. She wore her own homemade costumes on stage, behaved modestly, and engaged in "proper" female activities such as embroidery in her spare time.

5. SHE WAS ONLY FIVE FEET TALL.

In addition to Oakley’s gender, her diminutive stature made her stand out in the world of sharpshooting. In 1884, the Sioux chieftain Sitting Bull befriended Oakley when the two performers were traveling across the country. Acknowledging both her height and her shooting skill, Sitting Bull nicknamed Oakley Watanya Cicillia (English translation: Little Sure Shot). The American Indian warrior liked Oakley so much that he gave her his special moccasins to "adopt" her as his daughter.

6. SHE PERFORMED FOR KINGS AND QUEENS IN EUROPE.


Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Although the concept of the Wild West is firmly rooted in Americana, Oakley showed off her shooting skills across Europe as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. In 1887, she performed for Queen Victoria at the American Exposition in London, and the queen reportedly told Oakley that she was a "very clever little girl." In 1889, Oakley performed at the Paris Exposition and traveled to Italy and Spain. The press loved her, the king of Senegal wanted her to come help control the tiger population in his country, and Italy’s King Umberto I was a fan.

7. SHE OFFERED TO LEAD FEMALE SHOOTERS IN WORLD WAR I.

Wanting to use her shooting skills to serve her country, Oakley wrote a letter to President McKinley in 1898. She offered to provide 50 female sharpshooters (with their own arms and ammunition) to fight for the United States in the Spanish-American War, but she never got a response. Similarly, in 1917, she contacted the U.S. Secretary of War to offer her expertise to teach an army unit of women shooters to fight in World War I. She didn’t hear back, so she visited army camps, raised money for the Red Cross, and volunteered with military charities instead.

8. SHE SUED THE PRESS FOR PUBLICIZING HER (NONEXISTENT) DRUG ADDICTION.

In August 1903, two of William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers in Chicago reported that Oakley was a cocaine addict who was arrested for stealing a black man’s pants. Other newspapers ran the story, and Oakley—who was neither a drug addict nor a thief—was horrified. "The terrible piece … nearly killed me … The only thing that kept me alive was the desire to purge my character," she said.

The woman who had been arrested in Chicago was a burlesque performer whose stage name was Any Oakley. Most newspapers published retractions, but Hearst didn’t. He (unsuccessfully) hired a private investigator to uncover anything sordid about Oakley. Oakley sued 55 newspapers for libel, ultimately winning or settling 54 of them by 1910. Despite winning money from Hearst and other newspapers, costly legal expenses meant that she ultimately lost money to clear her name.

9. THANKS TO THOMAS EDISON, SHE BECAME A FILM ACTRESS.

In 1888, Oakley acted in Deadwood Dick, a financially unsuccessful play. At the Paris Exposition the next year, though, she met Buffalo Bill Cody’s friend Thomas Edison. In 1894, Oakley visited Edison in New Jersey and showed off her shooting skills for the inventor’s Kinetoscope. The resulting film, called The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West, featured Oakley shooting a rifle to break glass balls. Although she didn’t continue acting in film, she did act in The Western Girl, a play in which she portrayed a sharpshooter, in 1902 and 1903.

10. TWO SERIOUS ACCIDENTS HALTED HER CAREER.


Annie Oakley in 1922

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

In 1901, Oakley was injured in a train accident while traveling between North Carolina and Virginia for a performance. Although reports differ about the severity of her injuries, we do know that she took a year off from performing after the accident. Two decades later, Oakley was injured in a car accident in Florida. Her hip and ankle were fractured, and she wore a leg brace until 1926, when she passed away from pernicious anemia in Ohio at age 66. Frank Butler, her husband of 50 years, died 18 days later.

11. HER NAME BECAME AN IDIOMATIC EXPRESSION.

You know you’ve made it when your name becomes an idiom. Because of her shooting skills, the phrase "Annie Oakley" acquired a meaning of a free ticket to an event. Performing with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Oakley shot holes in tiny objects, making targets out of everything from playing cards to a dime to a cigar dangling out of her husband’s mouth. Because free admission tickets for theatrical shows had holes punched in them (so they wouldn’t be sold to someone else), these tickets came to be called "Annie Oakleys."

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