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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.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]

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