Russian prison tattoos – their significance and meaning

Back during the Soviet era, a strong culture of prison tattoos developed in Russia. They were used to tell who was in prison for what, and what authority they had in the criminal world.

The practice under the Gulag system grew in the 1930s, peaking in the 1950s and declining in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s.

History

Branding criminals in Russia was commonplace long before tattoos came on the scene. Deserters from the army were branded with a cross, while prisoners sentenced to hard labour had their forehead and cheeks branded with the word "VOR" (thief).

In the thirties, criminal gangs began to emerge, and with them a tattoo culture to define rank and reputation.

During the Stalin years, political prisoners were sent to the gulags by the thousands, and tattoos were used to differentiate between political prisoners and the Vor criminals.  

The tattoos themselves show a "service record" of achievements and failures, prison sentences and the type of work a criminal does, such as safe breaking or assassination.  Anyone adorning a tattoo who didn’t have the “right” to, could be punished by death, or forced to remove them themselves with a knife, sandpaper or a shard of glass.

Some of the designs came from English sailor tattoos, such as the flying tall ships, a heart pierced by a dagger, anchors, a serpent-entwined heart or a tiger baring its teeth.

Symbolism and meaning

From the 1960s to the 1980s, Arkady Bronnikov visited prisons all over the Soviet Union and photographed thousands of tattooed inmates to decode their body art. His findings actually helped solved crimes by tracing criminals back to their deeds and locations. Through his work we now know what the following symbols mean.

Stars - One of the most recognizable tattoos is the eight-point star, often placed on the chest and on the knees. This tattoo, when placed on the knees, means "I won't stand on my knees before the authorities." When placed on the shoulders it shows rank as Thief. 

Lenin or Stalin – Often tattooed on the chest, partly from a belief that a firing squad would never follow orders to shoot such an image.

Medals – Can indicate rank or, if done in pre-Soviet style, indicates contempt for authority.

Orthodox church – Indicates a thief, usually a chest tattoo, with the number of cupolas indicating the number of convictions

Suns – Rays can be used to indicate number and length of sentences served.

Snake – A snake around the throat can represent drug addiction.

Hooded Executioner – A prisoner who has murdered a relative.

Eyes – When on the stomach indicate the owner is gay (with the dick becoming the nose), or on the buttocks can indicate a passive homosexual

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