In Ecuador, Animal Tattoos Take On Dangerous Gang Stigma

Photos by Marcos Pin. Video by Enrique Ortiz

In gang-ridden Ecuador, people who sport popular animal tattoos such as tigers or eagles are increasingly forced to hide their ink as such symbols have become usurped by criminal groups.

The small country’s descent into deadly drug violence has come at the hands of groups such as Los Lobos (The Wolves), Las Aguilas (The Eagles), Los Tiguerones, whose brand is the tiger, and the powerful Los Choneros, who identify with the lion.

Images of these animals are graffitied on prisons and neighborhoods where the gangs dominate, and inked onto the bodies of their members.

In the port of Guayaquil, which has borne the brunt of the drug violence and gang conflict in Ecuador, both criminals and police keep a sharp eye out for the markings.

“I prefer to always keep my tattoo under my clothes because of all the current problems in the country,” a young man told AFP on condition of anonymity.

He had a large tiger tattooed on his back, just because he liked it, never imagining it would turn into a dangerous symbol.

“It seems absurd to me because they pigeonhole you, they stigmatize you” as being in a gang, he added.

The phenomenon has also set tattoo artists on edge who fear getting caught up in gang rivalries.

“What I do is, I comb through the social media of the person writing to me” asking for a tattoo, said Jean Paolo, an artist using only his first name.

“With so much danger… I literally need to be like the FBI,” he added.

He said that in some contexts, a mark associated with one of the gangs meant “certain death” for the wearer.

During police raids, officers and soldiers search under the clothing of suspects for tattoos linking them to gangs. They also look for such marks on people joining the security forces, to avoid infiltration by gangs.

Colonel Roberto Santamaria, the police chief in Nueva Prosperina, the most violent area in Guayaquil, said the tattoos were a matter of gang identity and loyalty.

“Drug culture leads to the creation of doctrines and stories, and this is a way of recruiting minors by getting it into their heads that they are part of a structure,” he told AFP.

On his cellphone, Santamaria keeps images of gang members and their tattoos, from AK47 machine guns to black-ink tears and animal tattoos.

“Each of these organizations has a special tattoo, for example, Los Tiguerones ink a tiger with a beret and stars that represent the hierarchy” in the gang, he said.

A tattoo can mean life or death in the country’s violent prison system, where battles between rival gangs have left some 460 dead since 2021, their bodies often found dismembered, decapitated, or incinerated.

Before entering prison, convicts “identify themselves by the tattooed symbols so that they are not placed in a wing run by another gang, because they know that the moment they enter that wing they are going to die,” said Santamaria.

Some tattoo artists report being asked to cover up animal images with new ink. Clients who can afford it go to clinics to have their body art removed with laser.

“Tattoo artists have been killed. Not for links to gangs, but because someone found out they covered up a tattoo” or worked on a rival, one artist who formerly belonged to a gang, said on condition of anonymity.

“They are tainting the art.”



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