A Guide to Russian Prison Tattoos

The ink created and worn in Russian prisons is a mysterious and often intimidating part of the world of tattoos. These tattoos often represent a hostile set of beliefs, a crime, or where the wearer stands in the criminal underworld. However, they can be helpful for prison authorities because they can give vital information. For example, sometimes tattoos are enough to send a person back to prison or even save the life of a man with a badge.

Soviet period prison tattoos hid an elaborate and rich visual language. Everything was revealed, from an inmate’s conviction to their rank. A study of prisoners’ body art has revealed unwritten laws only known by other inmates, recurring motifs, and cryptic symbols.

Tattoos Within the Russian Prison System

The origins of these prison tattoos can be traced back to the early age 19th century. At this time, the government initiated a practice of tattooing "KAT" on the faces of convicted criminals. This term, derived from the Russian word for "criminal," was a visible indication to society that the bearer had completed one or more prison sentences. This set them apart from the general population of Russia.

Over time, prisoners began to take pride in these markings, viewing them as a symbol that commanded respect and deterred potential troublemakers. In the 1900s, inmates in the Russian prison system began tattooing more intricate designs on their bodies when serving their sentences, driven by a determination to assert their identities and defy the pigeonholing imposed by the government. They aimed to take authority away from those in power, transforming a punitive act into a badge of honor they willingly embraced.

As a response, the authorities prohibited these prison tattoos, leading to their proliferation in underground settings. Prisoners resorted to makeshift tools and unconventional materials, such as ink from the rubber of burned boot heels.

A complex system of Russian criminal castes began within the prison system known as the "Thieves in Law." Members of this gang employed tattoos to tell rank and earn respect. The tattoos served as a means of exerting control over weaker prisoners.

The tattoos worn by this prison gang revealed the criminal deeds that had led to their imprisonment, their standing within the criminal society as criminal authorities of the gang, and the duration of their incarceration. The number of tattoos an inmate possessed directly correlated with the length of their prison sentence and the level of respect they commanded.

Tattoos assumed great significance among inmates, but they must be earned. If a newly arrived prisoner with no prior incarceration history sported a tattoo worn like the Thieves in Law, they would typically be killed on sight. The complexity and significance of tattoos grew in tandem with the rise of the Thieves in Law, transforming prisoners into illustrated men who showcased their life stories through ink.

How Were Prisoners Tattooed on the Inside?

Prisoners typically created tattoos on their own, often using improvised tools. For eyelid tattoos, they would position teaspoons beneath the lids. The intricate designs required significant time and dedication, sometimes spanning several years to finish. Makeshift needles crafted from modified shavers were commonly employed, and the ink concoction comprised burnt rubber and urine. Given the unsanitary conditions, hygiene was severely lacking, putting inmates at significant risk of infections and diseases. Conditions like lymphadenitis (inflammation of the lymph nodes), gangrene, and tetanus were prevalent among the incarcerated population.

The prevalent choice for tattoos among prisoners was ring tattoos, primarily due to their constant visibility. Each ring symbolized a specific conviction; thus, the number of ring tattoos directly corresponded to the number of convictions. 

A ring tattoo with a black-and-white diamond signified a plea of not guilty, while the presence of a skull or a pirate icon suggested involvement in a murder case. Additionally, a domino with six dots on the knuckle represented an individual who had endured significant hardship while incarcerated.

Older Generations still stigmatize tattoos in Russia.

When it comes to Russians getting tattoos, their parents may face slightly more difficulty accepting it compared to parents in other European countries. Tattoos have long been associated with criminal leaders, outlaws, and rogues across many centuries. However, this perception has changed significantly in most parts of the world. Tattooing has evolved into a widely embraced and nearly mainstream art form, despite its origins in prison systems and the ingenuity developed within them.

In contrast, in Russia, the older generation who grew up under the Soviet regime still views getting a tattoo as a potential forfeiture of one's career and social standing. It is seen as an inexplicable desire to mark oneself as an outsider, which could have led to severe consequences during the Soviet era.

While numerous criminal societies and gangs worldwide have distinctive markings and codes, such as the Camorra in Naples or the Bloods and Crips in Los Angeles, the Russian prison tattoo tradition stands out for its unique characteristics. However, the distinctive aspects of the Russian prison tattoo tradition set it apart from these other examples.

Church Domes

We took a look at a new book – Thief in Law: A Guide to Russian Prison Tattoos and Russian-speaking Organized Crime (Schiffer Publishing), 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 means and describes how the Russian Mafia became so dominant in the world of organized crime.

Scorpion

In Russia, a scorpion Russian criminal tattoo has a specific meaning. Generally, a scorpion tattoo means the wearer has spent time in prison. However, if the scorpion has open claws or a raised tail, it represents a Special Forces member who has seen combat.

Identifying Russian Criminal Tattoos

Prison tattoo photographs: the double-headed eagle

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, and 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.

Thieves Stars

The stars convey a certain status depending on where they’re located on the body. For example, when the stars are placed on the knees, it’s a sign the wearer demands respect. The meaning is, “I will never get on my knees for anyone.”

The wearer has a high rank if stars are placed on the chest. Only the most respected prisoners can wear the thieves’ stars on their chests.

Save and Protect

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.

Spider

A spider on a web means the bearer is either an active drug user and suffers from drug addiction or a legitimate thief. If the spider is crawling up the web, it means the wearer is still active in said lifestyle. If the spider is going down the web, it means the wearer wants to leave the criminal life behind.

Date of Birth/Imprisonment

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 wearer’s 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.

Skulls

Skulls indicate that the wearer has committed murder. The skull represents both the perpetrator as well as the victim's death. It represents the perpetrator as well because murder was once punished by death in Russia. 

The death sentence was put to an end in 1947 in Russia. However, it was changed to be an extra ten years of jail time. 

When this design is placed on an inmate’s finger inside of a square, it means that he’s serving time or has previously been convicted for robbery. Skulls can also mean an uprising against the government. The skull pictured above shows the wearer was a member of the VDV, the Russian airborne military unit. This is similar to the America Green Berets or British Army's Parachute regiment.

Jesus and Mary

A Jesus and Mary tattoo represents that the wearer was either born in prison or into crime.

Barbed Wire

russian criminal tattoo

Barbed wire told other inmates that the prison was serving a life sentence, and would spend the rest of their days incarcerated.

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Understanding tattoo history and the meanings tattoos have around the world is an important part of becoming a tattoo artist. It can also emphasize how difficult learning how to tattoo can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist. 

However, finding the straightforward information you need to progress is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources.

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into tattooing because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits. 

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need to build your skills and create incredible tattoos. 

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AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain.

When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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