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.