The tattoos on this inmate mimic those of higher ranking criminals. They indicate the bearer has adopted a thief’s mentality. However, he does not wear the ‘thief’s stars;’ he is not a ‘vor v zakone’ or ‘thief-in-law,’ and therefore holds no real power among this caste.
In jails and prisons around the world, tattoos can become a significant part of an inmate’s uniform, not only marking the crime they’re in for but also serving as a way to communicate with others.
Arkady Bronnikov, regarded as Russia’s leading expert on tattoo iconography, recently released a collection of around 180 photographs of criminals locked up in Soviet penal institutes. Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files, published by FUEL, is probably the largest collection of prison tattoo photographs to date, at 256 pages.
In the 1930s, Russian criminal castes began to emerge, such as the Masti (suits) and the Vor v Zakone (rus. Vor v Zakone) or Blatnye (authoritative thieves), and with that a tattoo culture to define rank and reputation. Up until World War II, any tattoo could denote a professional criminal, the only exception being tattoos on sailors.
A thief’s collection of tattoos represents his “suit” (mast), which indicates his status within the community of thieves and his control over other thieves within the thieves’ law. In Russian criminal jargon or Fenya (fenya), a full set of tattoos is known as frak s ordenami (a tailcoat with decorations).
The tattoos show a “service record” of achievements and failures, prison sentences, and the type of work a criminal does. They might also represent his “thief’s family”, naming others within hearts or with the traditional tomcat image.
Misappropriation of the tattoos of a “legitimate thief” could be punished by death, or the prisoner would be forced to remove them themselves “with a knife, sandpaper, a shard of glass or a lump of brick”.
This tattoo is a variation on the myth of Pometheus, who, after tricking Zeus, is chained to a rock in eternal punishment. The sailing ship with white sails means the bearer does not engage in normal work; he is a traveling thief prone to escape.
In the 1950s Nikita Khrushchev declared a policy for the eradication of criminality from Soviet society. Along with propaganda denouncing the “traditional thief” that had grown in popularity in Russian culture, punishments in the prisons intensified for anyone that identified as a legitimate thief, including beatings and torture.
As a response to this persecution, the thieves’ laws were intensified and the punishment for prisoners wearing unearned tattoos increased from removal to rape and murder.
By the 1970s, the intensification of the thieves’ laws had resulted in reprisals against the legitimate thieves, orchestrated by prison authorities who would often throw a legitimate thief into cells with prisoners they had punished or raped. To reduce tensions, criminal leaders outlawed rites of passage and outlawed rape as a punishment.
Fights between inmates were outlawed and conflicts were to be resolved through mediation by senior thieves. Additionally, a fashion for tattooing had spread through juvenile prisons, increasing the number of inmates with “illegitimate” tattoos.
This ubiquity along with the reduction in violence meant that the “criminal authorities” stopped punishing “unearned” tattoos.
In 1985, perestroika and the new increase in tattoo parlors made tattooing fashionable, and further diluted the status of tattoos as a solely criminal attribute.
Common designs and themes grew over the years, often having different meanings depending on the location of the tattoo. The imagery often does not literally mean what it is depicting—for example, tattoos displaying Nazi imagery represent a rejection of authority rather than an adherence to Nazism.
Combinations of imagery, such as a rose, barbed wire, and a dagger, form combined meanings. According to lexicographer Alexei Plutser-Sarno, tattoos become the only “real aspects of his life”. They are a symbol of the owner’s commitment to the war against the non-thief, the police (menty), and the “bitch” (suka).
The environment in the Soviet era was one of heavy visual propaganda, and the tattoos are a reaction to that, and a “grin at authority” (oskal na vlast), often directly parodying official Soviet slogans with Communist Party leaders often depicted as devils, donkeys, or pigs.
Text across the knuckles reads NADYA (woman’s name). The ‘ring’ on the forefinger stands for ‘Rely on no one but yourself’, a ‘patsan’ one of the most privileged inmates VTK. Middle finger ‘the thieves cross’ of a pickpocket. Third finger: ‘I served my time in full’, ‘From start to finish’, ‘Went without parole’, the prisoner served his complete sentence with no remission for working with the system. Little finger ‘The dark life’ the bearer spent a lot of time in a punishment cell. The skull and crossbones, gun, knife and letter ‘K’[iller] denote a murderer.
On his right leg is the acronym ‘SLON: S malih Let Odni Neschastya,’ which translates to ‘Only Misfortunes from an Early Age.’ Text under this reads ‘Here is what [is killing us].’ The dagger, cards and money are a variation of the popular tattoo ‘These are the things that destroy us.’ Text at the top of the left leg reads ‘Few roads have been walked.’ Text by the knee reads ‘Love.’ Text on the shin reads ‘It [the leg] walks around the zone.’ The theatre masks on the right leg represent happiness (before prison) and sadness (after prison).
A snake around the neck is a sign of drug addiction. The stars on the clavicles and epaulettes on the shoulders show that this inmate is a criminal authority. The Madonna and child is one of the most popular tattoos worn by criminals — there can be a number of meanings. It can symbolize loyalty to a criminal clan; it can mean the wearer believes the Mother of God will ward off evil, or it can indicate the wearer has been behind bars from an early age.
The stars on the shoulders show that this inmate is a criminal authority. The medals are awards that existed before the revolution and, as such, are signs of antagonism and defiance toward the Soviet regime. The eyes on the stomach denote a homosexual (the penis makes the ‘nose’ of the face).
This man is a Muslim; his features also indicate he is not Russian. Text on the arm reads ‘Remember me, don’t forget me’ and ‘I waited 15 years for you.’ On his stomach (left) is a religious building with a crescent moon. He is not an authoritative thief but has tried to imitate them with his tattoos to increase his standing within the prison. The lighthouse on his right arm denotes a pursuit of freedom. Each wrist manacle indicates a sentence of more than five years in prison.
This prisoner is a victim of syphilis and has suffered severe scarring to his face, eyes and mouth. In the prisons and colonies, male or female prisoners suffering from venereal diseases (such as syphilis) are known as ‘buketniki,’ bouquet holders. They are also nicknamed after army ranks, depending on how advanced their condition is; for example, ‘Kolka whored around without taking any precautions. Yesterday the medic told me that he was already a “lieutenant.”‘ (An inmate suffering from second-stage syphilis is known as a ‘colonel,’ third-stage a ‘general.’) There are cases where people have contracted syphilis, AIDS and tetanus while getting tattoos under unsanitary prison conditions. Tattooing is forbidden in prisons and camps, prosecuted and punished severely by the authorities. The practice has acquired more status as it gets pushed underground.
The devils on the shoulders of this inmate symbolize a hatred of authority and the prison structure. This type of tattoo is known as an ‘oskal,’ or grin, a baring of teeth towards the system. They are sometimes accompanied by anti-Soviet texts.
Text on the arm reads ‘Thank you Dear Motherland for my ruined youth.’ A dagger through the neck shows that a criminal has committed murder in prison and is available to hire for further killing. The drops of blood can signify the number of murders committed. Lenin is held by many criminals to be the chief ‘pakhan’ (boss) of the Communist Party. The letters BOP, which are sometimes tattooed under his image, carry a double meaning: The acronym stands for ‘Leader of the October Revolution’ but also spells the Russian word ‘VOR’ (thief).
Text across the chest reads ‘He who is not with me is against me.’ The swastika and Nazi symbols may mean the owner has fascist sympathies, though they are more usually made as a protest and display of aggression toward the prison or camp administration. During the Soviet period the authorities often removed these tattoos by force either surgically or by using an etching method. A tattoo of a mermaid can indicate a sentence for rape of a minor, or child molestation. In prison jargon the nickname for a person who commits this type of crime is ‘amurik,’ meaning ‘cupid’, ‘shaggy,’ or a universal ‘all rounder.’ They are ‘lowered’ in status by being forcibly sodomized by other prisoners, sometimes in groups.
On the index finger is a variant of an otritsala ring, denoting someone who is hostile to law-enforcement and the regime. They cannot be re-educated. Middle finger ‘Freedom for the youth’ or ‘I’ve done time and I will steal again’. Third finger ‘Ruined youth’, the bearer was convicted as a juvenile. The five dots on the wrist are a common sign of someone familiar with the prison regime. They signify ‘Four watchtowers and me’ or ‘I’ve been through the zone’, an inmate who has served a sentence in a correctional labor or penal colony. Lenin is held by many criminals to be the chief pakhan (boss) of the Communist Party. The letters BOP, which are sometimes tattooed under his image, carry a double meaning. The acronym stands for ‘Leader of the October Revolution’ but also spells the Russian word VOR (thief).
The text above the cross reads ‘O Lord, Save and Protect your servant Viktor.’ Text beneath reads ‘God do not judge me by my deeds but by your mercy.’ Text above the waist reads ‘I fuck poverty and misfortune.’ The skull and crossbones show the prisoner is serving a life term. The single eight-pointed star denotes that he is a ‘semi-authority’ among thieves. The girl catching her dress with a fishing line on his left forearm is a tattoo worn by hooligans and rapists. The snake coiled around human remains (positioned on the middle third of each arm) is a variation on an old thieves’ tattoo. The snake is a symbol of temptation; here the snake’s head has been replaced by that of a woman, the temptress. Tattooed on the right side of the stomach is a version of Judith (1504) as painted by Giorgione; this is intended as a symbol of a scheming, seductive woman who betrays a nobleman.
Text on the right arm reads ‘Save love, keep freedom.’ Text on the left arm reads ‘Sinner.’ Text across the chest reads ‘To each his own.’ Text underneath the skulls reads ‘God against everyone, everyone against God.’ Text on the wrist in German reads ‘Mein Gott’ (My God). A cowboy with a gun shows this thief is prepared to take risks and is ready to exploit any opportunity. A dove carrying a twig (left shoulder) is a symbol of good tidings and deliverance from suffering.
The design of epaulettes tattooed on the shoulders is adapted either from a pre-Revolutionary uniform or an existing Soviet one; both indicate the bearer has a negative attitude toward the system. They are worn by high-ranking criminals who might also have a corresponding nickname, such as ‘major’ or ‘colonel.’ Epaulettes with three little stars or skulls are deciphered as: ‘I am not a slave of the camps; no one can force me to work;’ ‘I am captive, but I was born free;’ ‘I’m a colonel of the zone — I will not sully my hands with a wheelbarrow;’ ‘The strong win — the weak die;’ ‘Horses die from work.’
The dollar bills, skyscrapers, and machine guns with the initials ‘US’ stamped on it convey this inmate’s love for the American mafia-like lifestyle. The eyes signify ‘I’m watching over you’ (meaning the other inmates in the prison or camp).
On the arm beneath the skull is the Latin phrase ‘Momento mori,’ meaning ‘Remember that you will die.’ The double-headed eagle is a Russian state symbol that dates back to the 15th century and was used by Peter the Great. In 1993, after the fall of Communism, it replaced the hammer and sickle as the coat of arms of the Russian Federation. This photograph taken in the Soviet period shows this emblem tattooed as a bold symbol of power and rage against the USSR. It can also be interpreted as ‘Russia for the Russians.’ The Statue of Liberty infers a longing for freedom, while the dark character holding a gun denotes a readiness to commit violence and murder. The eyes on the chest signify ‘I can see everything’ and ‘I am watching,’ the powerful tattoo of a criminal ‘overseer.’ The eight-pointed stars tattooed on the shoulders mark the bearer as an ‘authoritative’ thief.
Text on the chest reads ‘Save and protect.’ Text on either side of the cross reads ‘XV Hristos Voskres’ (Christ has Risen). The eight-pointed stars on the clavicles denote a high-ranking thief. A bow tie tattooed on the neck is often found in strict regime colonies. Originally, bow ties were dishonorable tattoos. They were forcibly applied underneath the clavicle cat tattoos of pickpockets who had broken the ‘thieves’ code’ and sided with the authorities. Today, however, there is no stigma attached to them. The dollar sign on the bow tie shows the bearer is either a safecracker, money launderer or has been convicted for the theft of state property.
(Photo credit: Arkady Bronnikov / FUEL).