Thursday, July 9, 2009

Russian Prison Tattoos - Implied In Ink




'According to the book of Genesis, God placed a mark on the world's first murderer before sending him into exile. The mark of Cain indelibly branded its bearer as a criminal and social outcast.
It is not known when tattooing first became a common practice in Russian prisons and Stalinist Gulags. Soviet researchers first discovered and studied this underground activity in the 1920s; photographs of prisoners from that period suggest an already elaborate and highly developed subculture. More than simple decoration, the images symbolically proclaim the wearer's background and rank within the complex social system of the jailed.'


Credit for above info, Foolishpeople.com


Somebody recently mentioned Russian prison tattoos to me when on the subject of my tattooed animals blog, so I decided to do a little google work and this is what i've found.


Crucifix- a cross worn on the chest signifies a “Prince of Thieves”, the highest possible rank. Or a scene of the crucified Christ, has no religious meaning but it’s the inmate saying he’s been oppressed and sentenced by the authorities just like Jesus. If the crucifix is topped by a crown then it means the wearer is a pakhan – a leader of a thieves family.




‘Grins’ – these are humorous tattoos usually incorporating a grinning face and are often accompanied by text. The butt of the grin/joke in will often be the prison authorities.

Snakes – a snake around the neck/shoulders mean that the wearer feels that the Soviet/Communist party system still has a hold on them, still adversly affecting their lives.

Tigers – signifies an ‘enforcer’, or a sign of an avenger, geared at times at guards and prison authority.

Cats – the cat is associated with the characteristics needed by a thief (slyness). The most common thief tattoo. Normally tattooed as a pair on the upper chest.

Skulls – these are usually worn by high ranking gang members, interpreted to mean a murderer.



Eyes – Various meanings: if on the upper/middle torso they literally mean that the wearer is keeping their eyes open and it isn’t a derogatory/forced tattoo. If placed on lower backside that is to show that the prisoner is used for sexual gratification. If the eyes are tattooed in the lower groin/hip high area, someone with that tattoo is known as ‘humiliated’ or ‘a Downcast’.



Barbed wire – Often the prison term in years is shown by the number of ‘barbs’ on the wire. (Additional search tells me that barbed wire accross the forhead means life sentence without possibility of parole, as depicted below.)




Swastika/nazi symbols – are a sign of rebellion against Russian prison authority. Doesn’t literally mean that the wearer is a nazi sympathiser. (In some cases, as below, swastikas are done facing the opposite direction. I could not find a meaning to this.)






Stars – stars commonly represent time served; each point indicates a year served in jail or if stars are tattooed on knees it means you bow to no authority.




Double Sig runes – One who does not confess, also tattooed as sign of rebellion to authority, again not usually associated with the Nazi symbol.

Churches – The number of dome towers (cupolas) indicates either number of prison terms or number of years of the sentence.




Setting sun – this tattoo is usually accompanied by birds flying over the horizon. It represents freedom.

Knight or Crusader – a knight in full armor indicates a sadist, an inmate accused of hooliganism, assault and battery. Also indicates prison ‘enforcers’ or tattooed for racist meanings.

Genie – a Genie and a lamp indicate inmates serving time for drug-related crimes.

Spider within a Web – Can indicate a drug addiction. It can also mean that the wearer is a thief. If the spider is shown moving upwards it means the wearer is still an active criminal, if the spider is moving downwards it means that the wearer is intending to leave the thief’s way of life.


(see swastika example)

Dagger – sexual predator or, if the dagger is tattooed on the shoulders with blood dripping form the end of blade, it means you are a killer, a man to be feared or called upon when in need of an accomplice for a murder.




Bells – Literally signifies that the wearer will serve his full given sentence, from “bell call to bell call”. He cannot get parole because he has been convicted of a very serious crime. Shows high ranking and will get respect in prison.


(see stars example)

Candle sticks – wearer is saying he can extinguish your light, beware.


Butterflies – show the wearer is trustworthy, and an escape artist.






Stalin and Lenin faces – considered sacred, so inmates would tattoo the faces over their hearts and vital organs so guards would not hit or shoot them in that spot of the body. Nowadays these tattoos are rarely used.

Sailing Ship – This means that the wearer is willing come along with an escape plan. Anyone planning an escape will know that the wearer will be keen to be a part of it.

Madonna – holding a baby Jesus – wearer has been a thief/criminal from their early days.

Rose – The wearer celebrated a teenage birthday in the zone (prison).

pornographic tattoos – in general these are either grins or forcibily applied because of failure to pay gambling debts or other infractions of the theives code.

‘Finger ring’ tattoos (there is a complex system with many types of ring tattoo). These tattoos may indicate the time served, type of crime or place of imprisonment.



To be continued

7 comments:

de-quoi said...

really fascinating to read i have been interested in the nature of russian religion under the communist regime since reading a day in the life of ivan denisovich and it is interesting to see how prisoners in a secular society have associated themselves with the christ from a political view rather than a religious view

JWAFTEROURS said...

god help the person wearing a tattoo out of bravado rather than earning it! this unfortunate individual is forced to remove it with a hot iron or a razor blade! a severe beat down soon follows.

Jessica said...

Finding the right drug addiction therapy program can be very difficult because everyone has a different, individual process.

JWAFTEROURS said...

jessie: the cure for drug addiction in some of these places is a bullet in the back of the head!

Joanna said...

Choosing the right residential treatment center can be difficult, whether for you, a loved one or a professional client.

Drug Rehab Pasadena

Hannah said...

this is amazing, all of it.
if you know a site or book where i could learn more that would be amazing if you could tell me.

Hannah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.