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A Guide to Russian Prison Tattoos

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

 

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Historical hand methods of tattooing

Historical hand methods of tattooing

The history of handmade tattoos is an extensive one and dates back over 5000 years. The first evidence was on Ötzi the Iceman who lived at some point between 3370 and 3100 BC.

 

In this post, I’m going to cover the entire history of tattoos made by hand. From Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece to the more modern Thai Sak Yant (pictured above) and of course, Western DIY hand poke tattoos.

 

The reasons for acquiring permanent markings on the skin vary from culture to culture. In some societies they are seen as forms of amulets, protecting the wearer from harm. Elsewhere, the reasons can vary widely, from symbols of class, one’s religious beliefs, aesthetics or even as a form of punishment.

 

So let’s get started with our friend Ötzi in our journey through the history of tattooing.

 

Ötzi the Iceman

 

Ötzi is the name of the oldest tattooed body ever to be found (upper right in above photo). He was discovered in the Ötztal Alps in September 1991 (hence the name Ötzi) and dates back to around 5200 years ago. He had been marked with a method known as ‘soot tattooing’, where the skin is cut and soot is used as ink by rubbing it into the open wounds with one’s hands.

 

It is believed Ötzi was marked in an attempt to relieve joint pain caused by strain-induced degeneration. This is due to the 61 tattoos being placed on his lower spine, knee and ankle joints, all places that aren’t very visible and are liable to degenerate over time.

 

It’s believed the dots and crosses were simply there as a result of a therapeutic practice rather than to distinguish status or express any belief.

 

Egyptian

The exact date that the Ancient Egyptians started tattooing is a highly contested subject, but as far as we know it wasn’t till way after Ötzi’s time.

 

There are figurines dating from 4000-3500 BC that clearly have markings on their legs and bodies. These tend to be spots and symbols that many argue are representations of real people who were tattooed.

 

However, the oldest mummies found with bodily markings, that fully confirm the process of tattooing are dated at around 2000 BC.

 

Interestingly, Egyptian mummies that have been found with these markings are exclusively women. Due to this, for a long time archaeologists assumed that these markings were made to mark women as prostitutes or to act as protection from sexually transmitted diseases.

 

However, there is a contradicting theory that has recently emerged. It claims that these were actually used as a permanent amulet, a good luck charm that was placed on women during pregnancy. This idea is supported by analysis of the placement and design of the tattoos that have been found on mummified bodies.

 

Most styles found on mummies were dotted patterns of lines or diamonds but 2 common designs especially stood out –

 

  • A net-pattern of dots on the abdomen was often found. This would expand during pregnancy and seemed to replicate the protective bead nets the Egyptians used in the process of mummification.

  • The other common design was a figurine of the deity Bes. This was found on multiple mummified females thighs. Bes was the deity that protected women in labour, again supporting the pregnancy protection hypothesis.

Egyptian tattoos were done in a similar way to good old Ötzi’s. As opposed to ink, soot was used and small bronze instruments consisting of sets of needles would make the incision. These were found in northern Egypt and date back to 1450 BC, making them the oldest confirmed tattooing tools ever found.

 

Japanese Tebori


The history of Japanese body art possibly dates back even further than the Egyptians.

 

Clay figurines dating to around 5000 BC have been found with what seems to be tattoos on their faces, outdating any of the figures found in Egypt.

 

There are however no Japanese mummies and so we can only be certain that tattooing started there in 297 AD where Chinese writings documented the fact. The writings regarded it very negatively and detailed how no matter what age the men were they would tattoo their faces and bodies with designs.

 

It is assumed these early designs were to symbolise status and were highly revered. Over time, however, this changed and in 720 AD there are written records of Japanese people being marked as a form of punishment for rebellion or treason.

 

Up until the end of the 1600s marking criminals for their wrongdoings was a widespread practice in Japan and brought with it great social exclusion. Crosses or lines were inked onto parts of the body, the placement depending on which crime had been committed. Numerous symbols were also used depending on which region the crime took place in, for example, one particular region famously would tattoo the Kanji for dog on the offender’s forehead.

 

By the end of the century, this form of punishment was phased out being largely replaced by incarceration, solitary confinement and capital punishment. One reason for this is the popular emergence of decorative tattoos, and the problem of offenders covering up their ‘punishment’ tattoos with bigger decorative designs. This is where the infamous relationship between tattooing and the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, started.

 

The eighteenth century came around and tattoos had started becoming popular. Due to their association with crime the elite wanted to put a stop to this and so illegalized all forms of tattoos.

 

This did not have a positive effect.

 

It made those already inked forced to live a life of crime as they were shunned in regular society and the idea of getting a respectable job was out of the window. The tattoo culture within the Yakuza was further embedded. Because of the pain, they showed bravery. Because of their permanent nature, they showed loyalty. Because of their illegality, they showed commitment to a life of crime.

 

These days the association with crime is still a strongly held belief in Japan and some hot springs and swimming pools, ban those who have them from entering.

 

So how is this millennia-old tattooing technique carried out?

 

‘Horishi’ is the name given to a Japanese tattoo artist. Before gaining this status they must train under a qualified Horishi for years, attentively watching each part of the process. Before this training is over they can’t tattoo another person, during the time they are simply watching and learning from their master. Partly due to this, the quality of work from Japanese tattooists is second to none.

 

The needles are sharpened by hand, held tentatively and then poked into the skin. Japanese designs tend to cover large parts of the body and often take years to fully complete because of their size and cost.

 

In the 1800s, an artist would first draw a picture onto someone’s skin with a brush and then a tattooist would simply trace over this design. This is still sometimes done today but now it is more common for the Hiroshi to do the artwork as well.

 

Ancient Greece

 

In 700 BC tattooing became widely used in Greece as a form of punishment and to permanently mark some citizens. This was especially used in slavery, marking them as slaves for life and making escape impossible.

 

The public despised the practice and many Greek authors complained about the injustice of it. Writings depict how criminals would be permanently marked on their foreheads saying what crime they had committed, a tough lifelong punishment.

 

There are no reliable accounts of the method behind how the Ancient Greeks would permanently mark people, but it is likely similar to the Ancient Egyptians.

 

Tatau

 

The origins of this Polynesian technique of tattooing is greatly disputed between countries but goes back to at least 1722 when three Dutch ships went to Polynesia.

 

Where it originates from though, who knows? The Fijians claim the technique came from Samoa, while the Samoans claim it originated from Fiji.

 

Samoan mythology tells a tale of twin sisters swimming from Fiji to Samoa. They brought with them tools to tattoo with and while swimming sang a song about how only women may receive this art. On the way, however, they saw a clam and swam down to fetch it. On their way back up their song had changed and now they sung that only men can have tattoos and not women.

 

Interestingly ‘Tatau’ is where the western word tattoo, meaning to permanently mark the skin, originates from. Captain Cook on his exploration voyages to Polynesia saw the tattooed males, heard the word and brought it back to the west.

 

The procedure is carried out with a set of handmade tools made of bone fragments that are lashed to bits of turtle shell. This is then lashed to a piece of wood which is used as a handle. The ink used is made from burnt candlenut soot which is kept in a coconut shell. A tapping mallet is then used to push the bone fragments into the skin and the ink is dripped in.

 

The design of Tataus is as important to tradition as the procedure itself. Uniquely the person getting tattooed won’t be allowed to choose their design, instead, it is created spontaneously as the artist pushes the needles into the skin.

 

Designs tend to be drawn on the thighs. They are symmetrical and consist mostly of straight lines and large blocks of ink.

Taking weeks or even years to complete it is a long procedure to undertake. They are notoriously painful and are not a process many people take lightly.

 

In Samoan culture males who get tattooed in this way are highly respected for the courage they have shown. Un-tattooed males instead are seen as naked and it is seen as incredibly shameful if a male has started the procedure but then doesn’t complete it due to the pain.

 

Sak Yant

 

This method originated over 1000 year ages in Kambuja, which today is known as Cambodia. The method spread throughout Southeast Asia and is now especially prominent in Thailand. Here it has become deeply ingrained in their culture.

 

The artist will be a Buddhist monk who pricks the skin with a steel needle top that is attached to the end of a long piece of bamboo. Traditional black ink is used and religious writing or designs are marked onto the skin.

 

Many different religious philosophies have influenced the Yant method, but they all bear the concept that the marking will act as an amulet, giving protection and good luck to those have it.

Ta Moko

Ta Moko was brought to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesia in 1769. Since then it was popularly used to represent particular tribe membership. It did however also have other meanings, for example, to signify wealth, travels, or one’s strengths.

 

Unfortunately, colonisation greatly disrupted this practice and almost put a complete stop to it in the 1800s, as it was seen as ‘distasteful’ and barbaric.

 

However, the old beliefs within New Zealand still hold true today and it is still considered as an incredibly sacred form of art.

 

Due to this and their belief that the head is the most sacred part of the body, this is the only place that gets inked. Within the Māori people having your face tattooed was a rite of passage and there is a strong sense of ritual around the process, which tended to begin at adolescence.

 

Instead of needles, fragments of albatross bones are used to chisel into one’s face. Ink is then rubbed into the new wound and a tattoo is born.

 

It’s supposed to be incredibly painful and the process looks quite gruesome but it does result in a very unique effect. When the cuts heal, they heal as bumps, indentations on the skin, where other methods the skin heals smoothly, with Ta Moko you have grooves.

 

Earth Lines / Skin Stitching

 

No one knows exactly how old skin stitching is. But it has been past down from generation to generation in traditional Native American families for hundreds and hundreds of years.

 

A thread is dipped into ink and then stitched through the skin. As the thread is pulled through the holes in your skin it leaves a trail of ink behind it.

 

While being one of the more intense methods, they tend to simply be gotten for their aesthetic looks although some believe they have medicinal remedies as well.

 

Stick and Poke

 

The history of stick and poke is a vast one, all the previous methods I’ve talked about are a form of stick and poke and as such it dates back over 4000 years.

 

These days they have grown infamous since the days of their notoriety within Russian prisons where inmates get covered head to toe in designs. However people have been giving each other stick and poke tattoos for thousands of years. It’s always been a more intimate way to share the experience, especially when a more complex, professional tattoo isn’t in the budget, or simply isn’t wanted.

 

More recently since the 1960s, there has been a surge in popularity within the Western counterculture, especially with youths inking their friends as a form of expression and rebellion. Now many people are either switching over from being artists who use tattoo machines, or simply never bothering to learn modern ways of tattooing at all.

 

With the popularity of stick and poke tattoos growing, we see artist making six figure careers by doing simple designs, as people love the uniqueness of the process, and the different design it gives.

 

 

However, this does not mean pick up a sewing needle and some ink from a pen! Sterilization of the equipment, body and environment is essential. Infections can be life-threatening and are no joke. Not to mention you could forever change someones life, not in a good way.

 

Too many young kids get messed up designs or fall seriously ill from attempting stick and pokes in unsanitary environments or with improper ink. Don’t make yourself one of them.

Don’t let this turn you off from learning the correct, and safe way to learn stick and poke tattooing. After dozens of trips to Japan, learning the correct way and safe way to tattoo by hand I’m putting together a series of kits to teach you how to safely start out in this exciting industry. Wether you want to make it a career or simply want to make a few small tattoos on yourself or your friends.

It’s launching soon! Sign up for the elite tattoo artist insider to be the first to grab one of these kits, as well as learning more insider tips on the art of tattooing.

 

 

 

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