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RUSSIAN PRISON TATTOOS
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.

The Russian prison population is one of the largest in the world. From the mid-1960's to the 1980's, thirty-five million people were incarcerated, and of those, twenty to thirty million were tattooed. The tattoos display inmates' contempt for official justice and retribution-- phrases and images directly mock the political system and the absence of any possibility for "reform" within the jails. "For a convict, prison is a crime college," reads one typical statement. Convicted female gang members sometimes prefer the simple declaration, "People are wild animals."

Barbed wire tattooed across the forehead signifies
a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

The drawing above shows the spelling of a man's name, Vasia, in Cyrillic characters. The symbols on each finger have specific coded meanings: "In life, only count on yourself," is the meaning of the symbol on the first finger, and the three skulls on the third finger symbolize murders committed by the criminal.

Monasteries, cathedrals, castles, and fortresses are often tattooed on the chest, back, or hand. The number of spires or towers can represent the years a prisoner has been incarcerated, or number of times they have been imprisoned. The phrase, "The Church is the House of God," often inscribed beneath a cathedral, has the metaphorical meaning, "Prison is the Home of the Thief."

A spider or spider's web symbolizes drug addiction.

Military insignia and epaulet tattoos are often used to signify criminal accomplishments or some other aspect of a prisoner's history. Skulls generally designate murderers. The crest in the drawing above refers to the White Guard-- troops who fought against the Red Army in the Russian Revolution-- and can mean that a prisoner was a high ranking criminal or had some special status as a criminal before their incarceration. The epaulet in the drawing below indicates that a prisoner has done time in solitary confinement. Nazi imagery is very common. An SS insignia can indicate that a prisoner is respected for never having confessed to anything.

Each point on the star represents a year in prison.

Images chosen by the prisoners borrow from popular art and the rich tradition of Russian icon painting. Churches, kittens, images of saints or the Madonna and Christ, portraits of Russian political leaders and Soviet architecture, death's heads and barbed wire are transmuted into a clandestine social and political language that can be decoded by fellow inmates and by ex- cons outside of the prison walls.
A cat tattoo represents a prisoner's past life as a thief. A single cat signifies that the criminal acted alone, while several cats together show that the criminal was part of a gang. The head of a tomcat is considered to bring good luck to a thief. It can also serve as a warning not to mess with the wearer.
An image of birds flying over the horizon means, "I was born free and should be free."
The writing on this arm reads, "I don't care about the Soviet laws--the only rules I follow are the ones I make up in my head. Many of the people sitting in here have no destiny, but I am not one of those." Personal statements of this kind are common. The phrase "My mother taught me to steal in the industrial zones" is quite popular.
A cross can indicate bondage, subordination, or slavery. Some tattoos are given involuntarily, as warnings or punishment for transgressions--sex offenders, for example, are frequently branded with a dagger running across their shoulder blades and through their necks.
The tattoos are painfully applied with needles and electric shavers, using ink made from urine, soot, and shampoo. Infection from the procedure is frequent, and death not uncommon.


Images courtesy of Matty Jankowski of "The Body Archive."

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All information is Copyright 1997 - 2006 'Foreign Prisoner Support Service' unless stated otherwise - Click here for the legal stuff
All information is Copyright 1997 - 2006 'Foreign Prisoner Support Service' unless stated otherwise - Click here for the legal stuff