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Sign Language in Tattoos, Gangs and Secret Societies

written by: Rebecca Scudder • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 4/5/2012

Sign language is many things in different circumstances. Learn about the Meaning of Tattoos, Wireless High Fives and Stacking.

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    As far back as 2000BC, the ancient Egyptians already adorned their bodies with tattoos. Since then, tattoos have spread to many cultures and the history is as colorful as the images themselves. Today, tattoos are definitely a fashion item, but are also significant in indicating membership to a gang or association or sexual inclination. They are a quiet- albeit sometimes flashy- way of conveying information.

    The most elaborate and artistic tattoos originated in China and Japan. Here are some examples of the meanings of tattoos:

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    Koi Fish

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    The koi fish is credited with great courage and power. It is supposed to be able to climb waterfalls and legend has it that a koi which manages that feat, will be turned into a powerful dragon. Tattoos of a koi fish represent courage and the determination to attain high goals.

    Polar Star

    Tattoos are often associated with sailors. Sailors are considered very superstitious people and, centuries ago before the invention of radar, navigated at night guided by the stars. To ensure a safe journey home, they used the image of the Polar Star as a good luck charm and had it tattooed onto their bodies. In recent years, the star tattoo has also become a symbol for gays to silently convey their sexual inclinations.


    Maori tattoos, which originate from the people of New Zealand, adorned the face rather than the body and were proudly displayed to signal tribal identity.

    Tattoos to Indicate Social Status

    Only in comparatively recent times have tattoos become quite common across all social classes. In the 19th century, for example, they were elitist. King George V sported tattoos and tattoo artists of the time were appreciated and admired as well as highly paid. The invention of the ink gun made tattoos much cheaper and easier available and they lost their exclusive status.

    In World War II, sailors and soldiers alike, signaled their allegiance to country and left- behind women by their respective tattoos.

    Special mention must be made of the Yakuza tattoos of Japan. They are extremely elaborate and often cover the entire body. These tattoos take years to complete and not only signify membership but are also a sign of initiation.

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    Yakuza Tattoo

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    Secret Societies

    Secret societies, foremost among them the Stone Masons, have an entire set of signs, handshakes and grips to communicate with each other and to identify membership. Each Grand Lodge, however is allowed to develop its own set of rules and signals and therefore no general catalog of such signals can be compiled. As is bound to happen with any secret society, public opinion about their aims and merits is ambiguous. The first Freemason Grand Lodge was formed in 1717 in London. Originally based on a community of stone masons, it soon spread to other professions, particularly banking. Whilst some consider Freemasons and evil community of members with selfish goals to further their social standing and financial advancement in immoral ways, others see the philosophical and philanthropic intentions of its members. Self betterment and care for the less fortunate, like orphans, widows and the elderly are well documented in vast financial contributions Freemasons make every year to such institutions.

    One special form of greeting, common to all lodges seems to be a handshake with the little finger splayed and crossed over the back of the other person's hand.

    For further information on Freeemasons

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    High Fives

    High Fives, the slapping together of the open palm between two people, expresses success and mutual satisfaction. Low fives are a variation of the gesture, originating from the 1927 film "The Jazz Singer". Air five, also known as 'wireless' five, is a five instigated by a person too far away from the recipient to actually touch. The gesture was first used by American TV anchors who, for obvious reasons, couldn't touch the audience on the other side of the screen.

    Open five is a low five or high five, where the hand to be touched is withdrawn at the last moment and the only form of a high five which can also mean an insult. Very high five is a gesture of extreme jubilation where the parties make a running start and slap in mid jump.

    On every 3rd Thursday in April the National High Five Day is celebrated. For more details on High Five Day and its origins

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    Hand signs as a form of identification and communication between gang members was first used by the Chinese triad. Black gang members introduced the custom in the 1950s in Los Angeles. Handsigning, also known as 'stacking', involves very quick hand signals, which either confirm membership or serve as a warning of hostile gangs in the vicinity. Some are so elaborate and fast, that gang members can hold entire conversations without uttering a word. It can possibly be a true sign language, not just a collection of a few signs covering a couple dozen meanings.

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