The FBI's Biometric Center of Excellence, which already collects tattoos and other identity markers in its massive database, sent a request July 13 to police agencies for information "related to any current databases containing tattoo/symbol images, their possible meanings, gang affiliations, terrorist groups or other criminal organizations."
Gang members and terrorist groups often share symbols among their followers as a way to easily identify one another and gauge member loyalty. Members of the Latin Kings, for example, illustrate their bodies with a crown, while members of the MS-13 gang usually tattoo "MS" on their skin. But other symbols are more cryptic.
FBI agents say combining their database with information gathered from tattoo databases at more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies could improve everyone's biometric-based crime-fighting and anti-terrorism efforts.
"Some of our database users have expressed a desire for (knowing) what tattoos may potentially mean," said Bill Casey, program director at the FBI's biometric center. "We are trying to learn the lay of the land and see if there are any databases out there agencies may want to share."
Central Florida law enforcement agencies routinely save in databases the digital images they take of tattoos and scars found on suspects, others under investigation or bodies that are discovered. Jails in Seminole and Lake counties also document such identity markers on all inmates.
None of the local agencies that do this, however, would talk with The Orlando Sentinel about the practice or the FBI's request to share and help interpret their databases.
The FBI's interest in broadening and deepening its tattoo database is part of the agency's larger project of collecting biometric information for its Next Generation Identification Program. That initiative, split into seven stages, also aims to expand the agency's collection of fingerprints, palm prints and iris scans, and to improve existing facial-recognition technology.
The agency hopes to deploy an improved, searchable database of tattoos, scars and birthmarks in 2014, agency records show.
Though the federal government emphasizes that its interest in tattoos is solely for investigative and informative purposes, some individuals are leery of the government tracking people's tattoos, especially because many symbols originally found in gang tattoos have been adopted by a broader segment of the public.
"I have a crown on my shoulder, but I'm not a member of the Latin Kings. The crown is a symbol for my mom, who was the queen in my life," said bartender Fernando Bonilla, 28, of Orlando. "I don't want a cop stopping me, taking a picture of my tattoo and sending it to the federal government."
Casey said that would not happen.
"People have to meet more than one particular criteria to be identified as a possible gang member, and having a tattoo that resembles a gang symbol is not enough," he said.
Eric Phillips, an FBI management-and-program analyst, said law enforcement's ability to properly decipher the iconography of tattoos would benefit certain civilians, too.
"The database could actually benefit the kid who gets a tattoo similar to a gang tattoo and lands in jail," Phillips said. "If a gang finds out that he's not really a member, it could be a very dangerous situation for that kid." He said tattoo identification and tracking could also help prisons and jails keep rival gangs separated.
Sailor Bill Johnson, a local tattoo artist and vice president of the National Tattoo Association, said he's not worried about the FBI asking local police and others about tattoos.
"You don't see a lot of (gang) tattoos getting done at local tattoo shops. Those are usually done by 'scratchers' who are not professionals," said Johnson, who has owned the Tattoo Time shop in Maitland since 1983. "If you're not breaking the law, then you shouldn't have to worry about anything."
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