'Struggle' is what the spider web tattoo symbolizes -- struggling in the ‘web of life’. And struggle in a spider's web implies capture, and the multiple strands of the web itself is often a metaphor for bars. Prison bars. In the West those bars usually represent criminal activity. In the East, or Communist Russia, prisoners may be criminal or political. And when captured, our most primal instinct is to seek escape, no less than the moth or the fly. But of course a spider's web is notoriously difficult to escape from.
As a tattoo design, a spider web can also express other forms of 'struggle'. It may be the struggle against the dictatorship of drugs, or the feeling of being caught in a political, social or economic system you can't escape, or an even more general sense of wishing you were never born. For the wearer of the spider web tattoo, it likely means something very unique, very personal -- it means what they want it to mean
Spider web tattoos have a dark history going back some seventy years, when Aryan, or White Supremacy gangs reportedly wore the spider web tattoo as a form of racist braggadocio, reportedly a sign that they had terminated a visible minority. The spider web became de rigeur in prisons, with each ring of the web representing time spent inside, or how many ‘prey’ have been ensnared in the wearer’s web. You might spot one on an elbow, sometimes on the back, or on the side of the neck, emerging from behind the ear, and more rarely, on the face. It has served as a billboard that the wearer is in for murder, or as a warning to enemies to keep their distance -- especially one worn on the left elbow -- which advertises the web-wearer as one who has a deadly weapon tucked away. A more philosophic prisoner might use the spider web as a reminder that they aspire to freedom, to escape the web from which they have become entangled. For some, say those with a 'Gallow's' sense of humour, the spider's web design can be taken more literally, almost as a joke, a statement to the world that goes; ‘Hey, I’ve been locked up for so long, I’ve got cobwebs.’
In the Russian prison system, where an elaborate language of tattoo designs and symbols has evolved, the spider web is often tattooed between the thumb and index finger. A web with resident spider is a confession to drug addiction. Sans spider means the wearer is a thief. On the neck, the spider web is a sign of repeated prison terms and solitary confinement for breaking prison rules.
Spider web tattoos have traditionally been associated with racists and other antisocial elements, but as the tattoo has become more main-stream it has taken on different meanings -- or none at all. Prisoners, bikers, gang members and ex-cons must be dismayed to see the spider web co-opted by members of the middle class, who might take to the spider web in order to be ‘cool’. Like ‘Gap’ and ‘Nike’, the ‘gangsta’ ethos is a brand many youth want to wear, and nothing’s stopping them. Rapper Vanilla Ice (Robert Van Winkle) is one rapper among many who sport the spider web. For fans of 'Old School' tattoo designs from the '40's and '50's, spider webs are also a popular motif.
From Paris comes a different take on the spider web worn on the elbow. Imagine a patron at a zinc bar, a drink in front of them for hours as they sit, head in hand, elbow on the bar. The spider web suggests that the wearer has spent so long propping up the bar that they’ve become pillier de comptoir - literally, pillar of the bar counter. Spiders have had no difficulty making camp on such a person’s being.
Only about 50% of spiders are web-spinners, the other half are predators who stalk their prey and prefer to go hunting for their meals rather than waiting around French bars to spin their traps.