Pop Culture dictionary

teardrop tattoo

or tear drop tattoo [teer-drop ta-too]

What does teardrop tattoo mean?

A teardrop tattoo is a small tattoo in the shape of a teardrop near one or both eyes. It is closely associated with gang and prison culture, where it often indicates one has served time, one has been humiliated, or one has killed. Others may get such a tattoo to represent sorrow or loss.

Related words

semicolon tattoo, Bloods, Gangster Disciples, Zodiac Killer, JPay, fifi, 😢 Crying Face emoji

Where does teardrop tattoo come from?

While the practice is almost certainly older, written evidence for teardrop tattoo comes in the 1970s, noted in a New Yorker article about a Mexican gang member who spent time in prison.

Perhaps not unlike a battle scar, 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—and warrant fear and respect for it.


The symbolism of the teardrop tattoo widely varies, however. In some instances, it’s said a dominant inmate forces the tattoo on a submissive one after being extorted, abused, or raped—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. Notable wearers are said to include 2015 convicted felon Jeremy Meeks, who went viral for an attractive mugshot.


Because of its negative associations in mainstream culture, the tattoo has proven 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 and his lawyer filed for an ultimately unsuccessful appeal, arguing that he should’ve been able to wear makeup to his trial to cover up his teardrop tattoo, avoiding the assumptions that often come with it. Various services provide removal of the teardrop tattoo, among others, for former gang members and inmates.

The teardrop tattoo, often under the right eye, may also signal sad sentiments more generally. This can include gang members commemorating a fallen friend or a spouse showing solidarity for a significant other in prison. However, this application is by no means limited to gang or prison culture. Johnny Depp wears a teardrop tattoo as a melancholy heartthrob in the 1990 film Cry-Baby for his ability to shed a single tear at will. In the 2000s, the late Amy Winehouse got a teardrop tattoo as did rapper Lil Wayne in 2012 to express personal distress or loss.


Examples of teardrop tattoo

Has Portugal ace Ricardo Quaresma had his teardrop face tattoo removed?
Adam Storer, The Sun (headline), June, 2018
one time i asked a cab driver if he killed someone to get his teardrop tattoo and if he had any other CDs than the foo fighter one he played repeatedly in his cab and he called me fat and told me to get out / i still don’t know if he killed someone or if he has other CDs
@mirandaplzzzzz, December, 2017

Who uses teardrop tattoo?


Due to its associations with bad boys and sad boys, the teardrop tattoo is sometimes an object of admiration—or source of humor.

The gang and criminal associations of the teardrop tattoo make it sometimes referenced as an object of fear—perhaps as originally intended.

Some take it upon themselves to warn others of those negative connotations of the teardrop tattoo.

Risks aside, many find the morose meanings of the teardrop tattoo an attractive look. Search “#teardroptattoo” on Instagram, for instance, and you’ll see wearers posting their finest selfies.

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of teardrop tattoo like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of teardrop tattoo that will help our users expand their word mastery.