For you, a Russian criminal during the Soviet era from the 1960s into the 1980s, tattoos were your public image. Your credentials were stamped on your body: what type of criminal you were, how many convictions you had, how much time you served, your affiliations, your philosophy, and some major life events. What kinds of tattoos would you choose if you were a Russian criminal?
It’s vital that you get some tattoos, especially if you’re Russian, and entering a prison or labor camp during the Soviet era. You’re going to need ink, and lots of it. It’s an unspoken rule that prisoners wear body art; it’s like your ID. Your tattoos tell your story. Like a soldier’s stripes or a professional’s LinkedIn profile, a prisoner’s tattoos tell about rank and achievements, plus some other interesting personal facts.
Now, what ink do you feel like today?
I’m a real badass.
I’m a real badass.
Ok good, that’s the entrance requirement. Lots of badasses get religious insignia. Not because they’re religious. It’s an irony, in fact. In the world of Russian gang tattoos, images of a church or monastery means that the person is a thief. The number of steeples on the church indicate the number of convictions.
Real badasses get a pair of eyes tattooed on the chest. It means they’re a senior criminal. The eyes say, “I’m watching you.” Eyes on the lower abdomen, however, suggest “homosexual” (the penis looks like a nose beneath the eyes, forming a “face”).
Choosing the right tattoo and proper placement
Is very important; the same tattoo on a different body part could mean totally different things.
In prison, tattoos were done in the authentic Soviet-era prison way: ink made from a mixture of ashes, urine, and scorched rubber, applied with an old electric shaver, adapted for the purpose. Needless to say, every tattoo here is an adventure, sometimes a fatal one.
Tattoo artists are called “prickers”. Good prickers are in such high demand that prisoners will try to transfer into certain prisons just to be near a good artist.
Tattoos on the eyelids are an especially delicate art. They require a metal spoon to be inserted beneath the lid, to prevent the tattoo pin from accidentally poking through to the eye. Just so you know.
I’m a free spirit.
A sailing ship tattoo means that the owner is not committed to normal work; he’s a traveling thief, and likely to escape.
I’m a pro.
A professional criminal wears two eight-pointed stars, just below the collar bones.
The same tattoos on the knees tells a different story. Stars on the knees show a disdain for authority, meaning, “I bow to no one.”
I’m an old-timer.
A bracelet tattoo on the wrist means the owner has served over five years in prison. Little crosses tattooed on the knuckles are tallies for trips to the “zone,” that is, to a prison or labor camp.
Can I get a tattoo of a naked woman?
Erotic tattoos are punishing tattoos. These images are meant for prisoners who’ve lost a card game, collaborated with the authorities, or broke a gang’s code of honor.
Any tattoos I should be afraid of?
A tattoo of a skull with a knife through it signifies that the person’s a murderer. If a guy has a knife tattooed like it’s stabbed through his throat, it means not only that he’s killed someone, but also that he’s a killer who is available for hire.
What tattoo will protect me?
Having a tattoo of Lenin or Stalin over your chest or vital organs could protect you, as it was believed that prison guards would not shoot an image of a revered leader.
I like cats.
Cat heads tattooed on the chest means the bearer is cunning and deceptive. The tattooed letters “KOT,” which is “cat” in Russian, means “native prison resident.”
How about something vague?
One of the most popular Russian prison tattoos is the Madonna and child. It can simply be a kind of good luck charm. It can also mean that the bearer has been in prison since childhood, or it can refer to loyalty towards a certain criminal gang.
So, how much will these tats cost me?
Cost is not the issue. The right to wear tattoos has to be earned. If you wear a tattoo that you haven’t lived up to, your prison mates may hand you a piece of glass or a brick and “ask” you to erase it.
Thanks to the overwhelming response to Russian Tats, we're gonna do a sequel. What would you rather to see?
Macdonald, Fiona. “Secret Meanings of Russian Prisoner Tattoos.” BBC Culture. October 21, 2014.
Simone, Alina. “What It Means When You See a Russian Guy with a Knife Tattooed on His Neck.” PRI’s The World. October 23, 2014