The ink used for these tattoos are made with a mixture of burned rubber and urine.
Text across the eyelids reads ‘DON’T / WAKE’. Eye tattoos are made by inserting a metal spoon under the eyelid so that the ‘needle’
doesn’t pierce the eye.
The tattoos on this inmate mimic those of higher-ranking criminals and indicate he has adopted a thieves’ mentality. However, he does not wear the ‘thieves’ stars’, he is not a vor v zakone (thief-in-law) and therefore holds no real power among this caste.
Tattoos with portraits of Lenin and Stalin are intended to show patriotic feelings. However, some prisoners had portraits of Lenin and Stalin tattooed on their chest for ‘protection’, as it was commonly believed that the guards were forbidden to shoot at an image of their great leaders.
The stars on the shoulders denote an authoritative thief. The rose on the chest means he turned eighteen while in prison. The acronym ‘SOS’ on the right forearm variously stands for Spasite Ot Syda (Save me from judgment); Spasayus Ot Suk (I saved myself from the bitches)*; Spasayus Ot Sifilisa (Saved from syphilis); Spasi, Otets, Syna (Save me, father, your son); Suki Otnyali Svobodu (Bitches robbed my freedom).
On the arm beneath the skull is the Latin phrase Memento Mori meaning ‘Remember that you will die’. The double-headed eagle is a Russian state symbol that dates back to the 15th century and was used by Peter the Great. This photograph taken in the Soviet period shows this emblem tattooed as a bold symbol of power and rage against the USSR. It can also be interpreted as ‘Russia for the Russians’. The Statue of Liberty implies a longing for freedom, while the dark character holding a gun denotes a readiness to commit violence and murder. The eyes on the chest signify ‘I can see everything’. The eight-pointed stars tattooed on the shoulders mark the bearer as an ‘authoritative’ thief.
Text above the cross reads ‘O Lord, Save and Protect your servant Viktor’, text beneath reads ‘God do not judge me by my deeds but by your mercy’. Text above the waist reads ‘I fuck poverty and misfortune’. The skull and crossbones show that the prisoner is serving a life term. The girl ‘catching’ her dress with a fishing line on his left forearm is a tattoo worn by hooligans and rapists. The snake coiled around human remains (positioned on the middle third of each arm) is a variation on an old thieves’ tattoo. The snake is a symbol of temptation; here the snake’s head has been replaced by that of a woman: the temptress.
Text across the chest reads ‘He who is not with me is against me’. The swastika and Nazi symbols may mean that the owner has fascist sympathies, though they are more usually made as a protest and display of aggression towards the prison or camp administration. During the Soviet period the authorities often removed these tattoos by force either surgically or by using an etching method. A tattoo of a mermaid can indicate a sentence for rape of a minor, or child molestation.
In prison jargon the nickname for a person who commits this type of crime is amurik meaning ‘cupid’, They are ‘lowered’ in status by being forcibly sodomised by other prisoners, sometimes in groups
The Madonna and Child is a thieves’ talisman, acting as a guardian from misfortune and misery. It also means that the bearer has been a thief from an early age: ‘Prison is my home’; ‘A child of prison’
Text on the arm reads ‘Remember me, don’t forget me’ and ‘I waited 15 years for you’.On his stomach (left) is a religious building with a crescent moon; his features also indicate that he is not Russian. He is not an authoritative thief, but has tried to imitate them with his tattoos to increase his standing within the prison. The lighthouse on his right arm denotes a pursuit of freedom. Each wrist manacle indicates a sentence of more than five years in prison.
A snake around the neck is a sign of drug addiction. The stars on the clavicles and epaulettes on the shoulders show that this inmate is an authority. The trousers worn by the inmate are part of the uniform of a special regime colony, the strictest type of regime in the Soviet Union. Criminals sent here are known as osobo opasnim retsidivistom (especially dangerous recidivists), who have carried out grave offences such as murder or paedophilia. They are assigned to harsher and more restricted regimes of detention than other prisoners, and are not subject to be released on parole.
The stars on the shoulders show that this inmate is a criminal ‘authority’. The medals are awards that existed before the Revolution and as such are a sign of antagonism and defiance towards the Soviet regime. The eyes on the stomach denote a homosexual (the penis makes the ‘nose’ of the face).
Russian criminal tattoos have a complex system of symbols which can give quite detailed information about the wearer. Not only do the symbols carry meaning but the area of the body on which they are placed may be meaningful too. The initiation tattoo of a new gang member is usually placed on the chest and may incorporate a rose. A rose on the chest is also used within the Russian Mafia. Wearing false or unearned tattoos is punishable in the criminal underworld. Tattoos can be voluntarily removed (for loss of rank, new affiliation, “life style” change, etc.) by bandaging magnesium powder onto the surface of the skin, which dissolves the skin bearing the marks with painful caustic burns. This powder is gained by filing “light alloy” e.g. lawnmower casing, and is a jailhouse commodity.
Tattoos done in a Russian prison have a distinct bluish color and usually appear somewhat blurred because of the lack of instruments to draw fine lines. The ink is often created from burning the heel of a shoe and mixing the soot with urine, and injected into the skin utilizing a sharpened guitar string attached to an electric shaver.
In addition to voluntary tattooing, tattoos are used to stigmatize and punish individuals within the criminal society. They may be placed on an individual who fails to pay debts in card games, or otherwise breaks the criminal code, and often have very blatant sexual images, embarrassing the wearer. Tattoos on the forehead are usually forcibly applied, and designed both to humiliate the bearer and warn others about him or her. They frequently consist of slurs about the bearer’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, or perceived collusion with the prison authorities. They can indicate that the bearer is a member of a political group considered offensive by other prisoners (e.g. Vlasovite), or has been convicted of a crime (such as child rape) which is disapproved of by other criminals.
Tattoos that consist of political or anti-authoritarian statements are known as “grins”. They are often tattooed on the stomach of a thief in law, as a means of acquiring status in the criminal community. A Russian criminologist, Yuri Dubyagin, has claimed that, during the Soviet era, there existed “secret orders” that an anti-government tattoo must be “destroyed surgically”, and that this procedure was usually fatal.