Teardrop marking is thought to have originated as a badge for violent gang members.
MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL
MILWAUKEE -- When David Romo returned to Milwaukee last summer after 16 years in the federal penitentiary, he was surprised by how many young people in the city had teardrop tattoos.
Romo, a large man with a bald head and pockmarked face, had been tattooed with the symbol in the early 1990s. At that time, he said, the marking was worn only by those who had committed murder, served time behind bars or lost a fellow gang member to violence.
The 52-year-old suspected that many of the teenagers he was seeing with the teardrop couldn't make such claims.
"Since I've been out, I've seen a lot of kids with them," Romo said. "It's like they don't even know the real meaning."
Romo isn't the only one noting the growing number of teardrop tattoos popping up under the eyes of youths.
Police and youth workers are alarmed by the trend.
They worry teens are wearing the decades-old tattoo as a fashion statement without understanding that it can cause them harm.
"They are a very dangerous fad for young people to be getting involved with," said Richard Harris, a former gang member turned youth worker in Green Bay, Wis.
"There's an expectation among older gang members that you know what it means. At one time, I would have caused some serious harm to someone who had teardrops who hadn't gone through what I had."
Nailing down the origins of the teardrop tattoo is difficult.
Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators, said it surfaced in California's Hispanic gangs in the 1940s. Other gang experts said the marking began in Mexico and Puerto Rico.
Whatever the exact history, it has continued to be associated for the most part with Latinos, said law enforcement officials and former gang members, who agreed with Romo's description of what the symbol has meant.
For decades, only hardened gang members and convicts wore the tattoo. That has changed in recent years.
"Ten or 15 years ago, you didn't see teardrops very much. Now you see it quite often," said Michael Young, captain of the Milwaukee Police Department's intelligence division.
"It's rampant on the south side," said Shaphan Coleman, a former gang member who does youth outreach in neighborhoods throughout Milwaukee.
Today, teens and young adults are getting the marking to demonstrate their gang affiliation, no matter how loose.
A teardrop under the left eye symbolizes gangs that fall under the category of People, said Stanley Cole, other youth workers and gang members.
One under the right eye signifies gangs that fall under Folks. People and Folks are two different gang "nations." There are many different factions affiliated with each nation.
Others without a gang affiliation are getting the teardrop to look cool, Cole said. Rap music and fashion offer inspiration. L'il Wayne, the popular teen rapper, dons two small teardrops under his right eye.
"It's a fad," Harris said. "Kids get them because they like the way they look."
The fad is cheap. Most people tattoo themselves or have a friend do it.
As Young put it, "Any kid with a bottle of ink and a pen can do it."
That's how James, a handsome 20-year-old with smooth skin and dark hair, got the marking. He was 12 and had just joined a Milwaukee gang.
As James watched a friend use a homemade tattoo gun to carve the symbol on the cheek of a fellow gang member, he decided he wanted one, too.
There was some personal meaning behind the symbol.
His father had died. But James made the decision more on a whim. The boys had been smoking marijuana. James found the marking attractive.
"I just wanted it," said James, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. "It looked tight."
But eight years later, James regrets his decision. At 16, he was sentenced to four years in prison for armed robbery. Behind bars, the teardrop inspired harassment from other inmates.
"I'd look in the mirror, and say, 'This brings a lot of problems,'" said James, who got out of prison last month.
Problems also can surface outside prison. Back in Milwaukee, James is struggling to stay clear of trouble. But the teardrop can make that difficult.
"You walk into the wrong neighborhood with that and you can get killed," said Ramon Candelaria, director of the Latino Community Center.
The marking also can be a barrier to employment.
Romo is working to resurrect a concrete business he ran as a young man. His teardrop has created barriers to success.
"I've lost a lot of customers," Romo said "They said: 'I don't want this crazy gang banger working on my house.'"
Frustrated by the tattoo's stigma, Romo and James plan to have theirs removed.
"I'm done with it," James said. "I want to start a new life."