Criminal tattoos – images put on a prisoner’s body that indicated his status, relation to a certain gang, his specialty, or criminal record – is a phenomena found not only in Russian prison culture. But in this country they played a very significant role in the life of an inmate.
Nowadays this complex cultural phenomena is known in many parts of the world. There were numerous exhibitions, documentaries, and books dedicated to the subject.
How exactly did they become so popular? In the beginning of 1990’s, a photographer and screenwriter Alix Lambert arrived in Russia and came across the article about prison tattoos. The topic peaked her interest and in several years she started working on a documentary “The Mark of Cain”. Later she published a book on the same subject.
Another major event in popularisation of Russian criminal tattoos was the publishing of the illustrated series “Russian Criminal Tattoo” by the company “Fuel”. The primary source for the books were the notes of Danzig Baldaev and his father. Danzig used to work as a warden in an infamous Leningrad prison ‘Kresty’ back in the middle of 20th century, where he documented the images on the inmates’ bodies and their meanings.
The tattoos were very important in prisoner’s life. They were special markers that could basically tell the story of someones’ professional status and much more. Prisons always had their own hierarchies on the inside that determined the relations between the people, and tattoos were a big part of it. These images basically turned one’s body in some sort of a visual ID, so to say. Certain tattoos and their placement could tell how much time someone spent in a cell, what they were guilty of, how respectable they were, sometimes they even revealed their attitudes towards government authorities.
A person without them became the person without a status. Each image wasn’t simply something you could easily have depicted on your body, they had to be earned. There were incidents, when a tattoo was forcibly removed by the other prisoners from the body of the inmate who didn’t deserve it. There were also cases, when the images that implied some anti-government opinions were removed by the guards against the person’s wish.
Over the years some of the tattoos have changed their meaning and new images have appeared. Although despite this and the fact that the overall attitude towards tattoos has also transformed, many still indicate very concrete things. So what some of the specific prison images can tell about their owner? Here are some of the most well-known criminal tattoos and their meanings:
- The amount of domes on the tattoo of a church corresponded with how many times one was convicted.
- The dagger close to the neck was a sign that this person should be feared, because he has committed a murder while being imprisoned.
- The cat was a typical sign of a thief. Another image that was closely connected with this type of criminals were the thief stars. They were tattooed on the ones who were considered to have a significant authority in prison. Placed on the knees, for example, they meant that the owner doesn’t kneel before the government officials.
- Skulls indicated that this person was charged with murder. Combined with crossed bones, a skull stated that they serve a life sentence.
- The rose showed that the inmate has turned 18 in prison. Usually the flower was depicted with the image of the metallic bars or barbed wire. And Madonna and Child symbolise that one has been living as a criminal from a young age.
- The ‘grins’ – depictions of a face that bares teeth – are an often sign of the hatred towards the system and government authority.
- Many inmates had their fingers tattooed with the imitation of rings, especially if their bodies were already extensively covered in other images. Such ‘jewellery’ was also symbolical, for example a ring with a black coloured rectangular box signifies a man who served a full sentence.