The ink worn and created in Russian prisons is a mysterious and often intimidating underside to the world of tattoos. Each marking represents a crime, a vicious act, a hostile set of beliefs or the bearers standing in the criminal underworld. For a cop, they can give vital information and sometimes enough to send that guy back to prison or even to save the life of the man with the badge.
We took a look at a new book – Thief in Law: A guide to Russian prison tattoos and Russian-speaking organized crime (Schiffer Publishing) written by our friend Mark Bullen, the former British police officer responsible for investigating the Russian Mafia, and training Western Europe’s police on Russian criminal tattoos. With more than 100+ original photographs taken in prisons and police stations by the author and other officers, the book decodes and explains what each of these secret criminal markings mean and explains how the Russian Mafia became so dominant in the world of organized crime.
The tradition of prison tattoos in Russia goes all the way back to the start of Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union and the formation of the infamous Gulag network. Prisoners used tattoos as a way to show their resistance to the new rule of the Communist Party, a secret language using ink was born. Crude images depicting the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) as devils, pigs or wolves and Lenin being displayed as the biggest thief of all became common, as did images showing where the owner was from or the crime that had caused his incarceration.
After the Second World War a split emerged in the criminal world and men began creating more intricate and discreet tattoos, these became a way of displaying their skills and past achievements to their fellow convicts. A feather showed the wearer was skilled with a knife, each tower of a church or castle showed how many terms the wearer had served in the zone and X’s on the hand showed how many escape attempts he’d made.
Russian female prisoners also started to tattoo themselves, not as crudely as their male counterparts, instead they’ve gone down a more melancholic and poetic route. Swans, violins, hearts and roses all denote the wearers’ sexuality or the part love has played in her life or why she’s ended up in jail. Phrases like may my love lie on you like a tombstone and grab grief, fall in love with me became the sort of thing seen on Russian female prisoners as they pass their time as part of the world’s second biggest prison population.
Marks new book is a wonderful companion for anyone interested in underworld tattoos, Russian history, or just a bizarre, often unpleasant landscape and is an easy, enjoyable read. Thief in Law is a fine encyclopedia of Russian prison tattoos as well as a guide to the country’s prison history and culture.
Thief in Law is available in to order now on Amazon worldwide, and will be in all good book shops in the USA after September. More information on the subject is on the authors website www.markgbullen.com
Learning how to become a tattoo artist can be intimidating, but the true challenge is in learning it properly so you can make a successful career out of it.
In order to learn how to tattoo at a professional level, we created a list with some of the best tips that you’ll need to keep in mind during your apprenticeship and beyond.
Believe it or not, becoming a good tattoo artist is not as hard as you may think, yet it does require an understanding of the fundamentals, a bit of practice, hard work, and plenty of commitment.
Here are some of the tips and ideas you’ll need.
Educate Yourself First
You can’t learn much about tattooing unless you commit to educating yourself. You need to do all you can to expose yourself to the best techniques and styles in the industry. You will always get to try out some new ideas and techniques. When working in a shop you never know what will be coming in the door. In one day you may be asked to do a more realistic style black and grey piece, to a traditional eagle, to some simple script. While you should specialize and be sought out for a style that you can master, it’s important to be able to do a solid version of whatever may come in the door, especially early in your career.
Sure, you won’t be able to do everything great right from the start, but the more your practice (especially in your sketchbook), and the more you try, the better you’ll get. If you know you’ve done all that you can to educate yourself, have practiced (on paper first!) this type of style, don’t be afraid to take in that challenging piece. Of course make sure you have guidance and assurance from someone more advanced than you, and be honest with yourself. Don’t attempt a realistic portrait when you’ve only ever done one or two average black and grey pieces in your entire career.
You should first just take your time and focus on the educational aspect of tattooing. Drawing, painting, and practicing on fake skin. Take your time. At the end of the day, learning how to become a tattoo artist is as easy as learning any other trade, as long as you have the right focus and work very hard to achieve your goals.
You can learn more about this at EliteTattooPro. This is the world’s most comprehensive online tattoo course. Learn the fundamentals of tattooing from a master craftsman.
Tattoo Safety Essentials
Make sure that you clean up and sterilize all of your equipment, following all cleanliness procedures. The reason is simple, you can easily get and give infections if the items and area are not sterilized. The health and safety of your clients is in your hands. Educate yourself, and even if not required in your state consider getting your blood borne pathogen certification from a reputable place like the American Red Cross.
Make sure you’re using new needles, ink caps, and either properly sterilized or disposable tubes for each tattoo. Of course, make sure that the ink you use is sterile, and suitable for tattooing. Avoid cheap inks coming from China or unknown/dangerous sources. These inks may contain heavy metals and other contaminants and should never be used on a living organism!
Check expiration dates on packages. Inks and needles are sterilized and will remain so (unless opened or damaged) until a certain date. While these materials “should be” fine past that date, it isn’t worth risking your clients safety or your name to save a few bucks. If in doubt, throw it out.
When you’re learning how to become a tattoo artist, you will need to acquire some proper equipment. When you’re just starting out it’s ok to have some “cheap” equipment. This allows for practice on fake skin, the ability to take apart your machine and learn the mechanics and geometry, and really “run it hard” to find the limits and get comfortable with the equipment. Your first car likely wasn’t a Mercedes, and you likely didn’t take care of it as best you could.
Just like everyone else that first “tool” was something to learn in and not worry too much if you dinged it up. As you progress you’ll be able to afford that nice “Mercedes” tattoo machine of $400-$700+ and know you’re able to take care of if anything were to go wrong since you practiced on your cheaper machine and learned the basics in the early days (more on machines below). Tattooing for beginners is less about machine secrets, and more about nailing down the fundamentals. On your journey it’s important to stay well rounded. Focus on your drawing and design skills just as much as how to properly use your tools.
After your machine, you will need to purchase tattoo needles. Some professionals work with a single one, others want more to suit different tattoo techniques and styles, up to 14-18RL (round liner) in some cases.
You’ll need to purchase a power supply for your tattoo machine. As with the tattoo machine, something cheap but reliable in the beginning will get you through the early stages of your apprenticeship. The main thing you want to look for in a power supply is something compact, durable, with a steady/clean supply of power to your machine. Having something too cheap can however give you extra headaches, such as inconsistent “surging” of the machine which leads to broken/choppy line work.
Next you need to focus on finding some good tattoo inks. As we mentioned earlier, avoid Chinese inks, homemade inks (for now), and anything you can’t trace back to a reliable source.
Depending on your shops policy, you may need to get your own gloves, disposable razors, and some antibacterial or “green” soap. The key is to stay sterile, and stay safe. Don’t focus on being too fancy with your equipment in the beginning, you have to crawl before you can run.
Modern tattoo machines tend to use electromagnetic coils which move the armature bar down. Although many, if not most, artist are switching over to rotary machines it’s still important to learn the basics on a simple coil machine. This includes knowing how to assemble and repair things like broken springs, grounding, tuning, etc.
Some different variations on the tattoo machine include:
Pneumatic machines are powered by an air compressor. What makes them very distinct is the fact that they are super light, and that does offer them a very good quality and impressive power. Something to keep in mind here is that they use pressurized air in order to power the machine and drive the needle up or down. The drawback is of course need an air compressor, hoses, clamps, etc. This makes them inconvenient for travel.
Coil machines are the oldest ones out there. Originally created from a door bell mechanism, little has changed in the basic design since the early 1900’s. Coil machines have between 6 and 10 wraps around two separate coils. When these coils are energized they attract the armature bar down, driving the attached needles down, and into the skin. I’ll post pictures soon to further illustrate this, and we go over it in depth on the inside.
Most artists, myself included, typically still use a coil machine for lining and a rotary for shading. Although it’s important to learn how to properly use any type of machine (start on coils!) as you never know what your career and travels will bring.
Rotary tattoo machines are somewhat newer and there are many versions coming out all the time. The basic design is an electric motor sitting in a housing. On one end is a cam, which offsets the drive of the motor and drives the needle. Again, I’ll post pictures soon to further illustrate this, and we go over it in depth on the inside.
Shader machines are designed in two different ways and can be either rotary or coil. One to be hard hitting and pack in solid color and more traditional look, while black and grey shaders have a shallower depth and are built to accommodate multiple passes necessary for softer black and grey or color blends.
Liner machines are of course set up for single pass lines. There are fine liners which are used from 1-5RL (round liners), and the more “slappy” type machines that are typically used for larger groupings, say 9-15+RL.
Tattoo Needle Types
There are multiple types of tattoo needles, and each one of them has a different way of entering your skin, and producing a desired result.
Round liners (RL) are the most used as most tattoos that come in will require some type of outline, depending on the style of course. Everything from super tight single needle to loose 14+RL are available.
There’s also the round shader as well as the texture round shader. These can be used for lining, but be careful as they often don’t look that crisp after healing. They’re used more for filling in tighter areas where your mag can’t get in, as well as other “specialty” uses.
Magnums are used for packing in solid color as well as blending colors and doing black and grey. You also have the bugpin magnum, and the curved magnum as well. Just like liners there are so many options available for every type of tattoo. This is where it comes back to education and learning as much as you can about the industry and the incredible assortment of tools available to you for each tattoo. Don’t get overwhelmed, while there is much to learn just take it one thing at a time and we’ll get you through it.
Types of Tattoo Inks
We mentioned inks briefly above, but when you’re first starting out you should just stick to a reputable ink manufacturer, such as the ones offered here. Our partner inks have been around for more than 30 years and are in the tattoos of some well known celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone. Shameless plug, I know, however it’s the easiest way when you’re first getting started. As you progress we’ll get you into the hand made inks, blending and mixing inks, and even creating your own washes.
A very basic tattoo setup isn’t too complex. Your number one priority should of course be working on a clean environment with sterile equipment.
Getting a starter kit and setting it up is maybe the best option for beginners. While we aren’t recommending you get one of our kits and start tattooing your friends, these kits will let you get comfortable with the equipment, practice on fake skin, and have something to show a shop owner when you go in trying to find an apprenticeship.
Once you have the setup ready, you obviously want to make sure that you practice as much as you can. No enthusiast becomes a professional without the right amount of work. First start on paper, as Boog said “if you can’t get down on paper, you can’t get down on skin.”
Next you’ll want to pick up some fake skin. While this skin is pretty good for practicing your line work it isn’t very realistic when it comes to shading. As your first few tattoos will be mostly line work or solid color (black), this practice skin is perfect for just starting out.
Next you should head to Chinatown and pick up some pork skin. I know, I know, gross. However, this is the closest thing you can get next to tattooing humans and will let you get a feel for a client with the absolute worst skin.
All the above are fine for the practice inks that came with your kit. However once you’re ready for the fourth step, tattooing yourself, you’ll want to switch over to our proven and sterile inks. Most tattoo artists start out tattooing anywhere they can hide and reach. Yes, it’s difficult to tattoo yourself (when it hurts you can just stop!), however if you’re a responsible and considerate artists this is the best way.
Tattoo Stencils 101
The Tattoo Stencils are an outline of the tattoo design that is created before the artist starts working on the skin. Why do you need Tattoo Stencils? The reason is simple; you can’t create what you don’t have a blueprint for.
A stencil is a carbon copy of the line work, which occasionally can include some blueprints for the shading, but that comes at a more advanced level.
The most common way is to use a thermo-fax, or stencil machine to make a quick copy of your line work. Although if you’re just starting out you can simply tape your design to some transfer paper, and trace over it with a ball point pen. The pressure will provide a carbon copy for you to use, no machine required! Just a bit more of your time. Check it out here.
Another way is the sharpie method that we describe here. You’ll need 3 different colors of varying darkness. I like to use yellow, mint green, and red.
With yellow I do my initial sketch directly on the skin, just the rough outline, as I would do my initial sketch in red pencil.
Next, with the green, I’ll start to get some more exacting shapes. Finding the lines I actually want to use and darkening them.
Finally I’ll use my red sharpie to pick out the EXACT lines I want to tattoo, using solid lines for hard lines and dashes for washed lines or shaded areas.
Keep in mind these lines, just like the carbon stencil, are just “guidelines” and aren’t always followed with laser precision. This whole process is described in detail here.
After you have a stencil on it’s important to focus on producing a clean, solid outline. One of the most common questions I get is “how do I get good line work?”
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a mentor was “focus on the beginning and end of a line, the middle will take care of itself.” I’ve expanded on this with a driving analogy.
When you drive a car you don’t focus on what’s immediately in front of you. Meaning you aren’t hyper focused on what’s inches in front of your bumper at all times. If you did you’d be swerving all over the place every few feet.
Instead you keep an eye on the horizon and your surroundings which produces a nice, smooth ride.
The same is true for tattooing. Hopefully you’ve been practicing with the pen method on paper, your machine and practice inks on fake skin, and have developed the confidence in your muscles and mind to pull clean lines.
If you have proper machine control (holding and using your equipment correctly), are well practiced (on paper and fake skin), then you’ll build confidence in yourself as time progresses.
Don’t be discouraged, I’ve worked with a few celebrity tattoo artists who can only do small, one inch lines at a time. The important things is to be able to cleanly “pick up” and “join” your lines seamlessly to keep that smooth look and feel in the piece.
Color work can vary from solid black, bold/bright traditional work, to smooth and blended layers depending on the design of the tattoo. If you’re just starting our I’d recommend solid black or solid colors.
Machines set up for black and grey tend to have a shallower depth, and are used in conjunction with bug-pin needles. This allows for less trauma to the skin, meaning you can do more layers without overworking. Just don’t try to do solid color with a set up like this.
What To Do After Tattoo Is Done?
Tattoo care is as important as making sure that the tattoo was done properly in the first place. The more you invest in a good aftercare routine, the better the results will be in the end. So, the bandage needs to be kept at on at least until the client gets home and is able to shower.
Advise the client to take the bandage off while in a warm shower to ease the removal of any tape holding the bandage on. While in the warm shower let the water hit slightly above the fresh tattoo. While using a mild antibacterial soap use the palm of your hand to gently wash off the dried blood and grease.
Gently pat the design dry with a clean paper towel and allow it to air dry.
For the first few days I just let that tattoo get as much air as possible, meaning don’t put any heavy creams or lotions on it that could clog pores and prevent air from getting to the skin.
After the first few days, when it starts to scab up and get itchy, you can use a thin coat of unscented lotion or tattoo ointment as we’ve detailed here, and available here.
Remind the client not to pick the scab, soak in water (tub, ocean, pool), and to follow up with you if there’s any concern in the healing.
At the end of the day, it’s not too complex to become a tattoo artist. These 13 steps will get you started and thinking about what you’ll need to pay special attention to. It’s an incredible opportunity to become a tattoo artist, and one that will return any effort or extra work that you put into it. At the end of the day, you have to realize that practice makes perfect, so the more you put into it, the better the results will be.
Again, there is always something to learn, but that should be exciting instead of daunting. Just focus on one thing at a time, and before you know it you’ll be a professional artist. We’re always here to help, and if you didn’t see something listed or want to know more drop us a line here, and be sure to sign up to our newsletter to stay on top of tattoo news and specials!