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Life written in ink: History and vivid symbolism of Russian prison tattoos

When tattoos become a language of its own

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In a world beyond conventional law, there is a unique code language that remained hidden for more than a century. It originated as a practice used by authorities to punish and humiliate lawbreakers, but soon became one of the most notorious traditions known to the Russian underground. Embracement of tattoos as a symbol of defiance, status and pride was a turning point that changed the criminal culture forever. Yet, every drop of ink had to be justified by one’s criminal past since each illustration carried a specific meaning and signified rank within the prison hierarchy. This meant misappropriation of tattoos characteristic for a higher rank criminal carried serious repercussions such as violent removal of tattooed skin, rape or death.

Although complete demystification of the language spoken in body ink remains impossible, diving into history and symbolism can bring us closer to understanding the secret way of communication established within one of the most closed and dangerous communities in the world.

Origins and history of criminal inking in Russia

Long before tattoos became a part of pop culture, customary inking of army deserters and prisoners was a popular practice across Russian Empire and Soviet Union. Rebels against authority got tattooed across their face with letters KAT, which was an acronym for the word каторжник, meaning a hard labor prisoner of Каторга, penal colony in Siberia. Due to its symbolic origin, KAT tattoo can often be seen on present-day convicts.

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In 1863., a law forbidding forcible tattooing of convicts was passed and the end was officially put to this practice. However, it had already gained a ritualistic following inside the criminal community which only continued to soar in the decades to come. Since Stalin’s rule brought severe punishments for even the smallest of crimes, prisons were fully stacked and a caste system among the convicts had to be made. In accordance to one’s criminal past and record, a place in the hierarchy was awarded and marked by an appropriate set of tattoos, known as фрак с орденами (tail coat with decorations). In order to create the illustrations, tattoo artists used a tattoo gun named машинка and ink called мазут that was made of rubber and urine. After 1970., there’s been a noticeable decline in tattooing within Russian criminal millieu due to mainstream popularization of body inking.

Design and symbolism

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While they enabled complete transparency of one’s past and rank within the criminal community, tattoos were never meant to be literally interpreted. Biblical images, epaulettes, stars, skulls and animals were common motifs, although this list was ever-growing and expanded massively over the years.

Stars and epaulettes

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Since criminal tattoos could only be made in accordance with one’s rank, certain illustrations were allowed only to the highest class, known as Вор в зако́не. In order to attain Вор status one had to denounce his family, never marry or have children, not own any kind of property or deny his criminal lifestyle, even to authorities. Tattoos traditionally worn by them were shoulder epaulettes and stars on the shoulders or knees (meaning: ”I kneel to no one”).

Religious imagery

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Madonna, crosses and churches were all considered a must have in every respectable thieves tattoo collection. Churches were traditionally placed on back or chest with the number of cupolas referring to one’s number of convictions, while bells signified a long term conviction without parole. Tattoo of Madonna holding a child meant ‘’I’m a son of prison’’, and was considered to protect those who’ve lived a thief life since their early youth.

Forced tattoos

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Humiliation of another inmate, punishment or lowering of his rank was often done with the practice of forcible tattooing.  Mermaids pictured on the stomach were forced onto pedophiles and girls wrapped in their dresses on rapists; inmates who’ve been raped themselves had been given an illustration of a girl on their hip or back. Dots around the mouth or eyes were tattooed by force onto homosexual convicts.

Miscellaneous

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Skull tattoos were characteristic for murderers, while hooded executioner image meant the murdered person was a relative. Eyes on the chest were meant to say ‘’I’m watching you’’, but those on lower stomach marked a homosexual. Convicts who’ve committed a murder in prison and were available for further work could be recognized by a tattoo of a dagger piercing through their neck. Prisoners who weren’t likely to leave the prison during their lifetime often tattooed acronyms or phrases on their eyelids.

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In a world where a man without tattoos is considered worthless, ink is far more than just skin deep. Today, more than 95% of convicts in high security Russian prisons are heavily tattooed, all of them featuring criminal symbolism. Unlike any other community in the world, Russian criminal circles have created and preserved a code language written in ink-made images that continues to fascinate, intimidate and startle outsiders, but makes a difference between life and death for the incarcerated outlaws.

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