The Fascinating World of Russian Criminal Tattoos

Russian criminal tattoos have a strong cultural and aesthetic significance. Crude, bold and often frightening, these hand poked black and white images also bound to a specific symbolic system.

Since the early years of the 20th-century prison tattoos in the Soviet Union indicate criminal career and rank. Criminal tattoos have deep meaning for inmates but are also quite important as a street credibility mark within the Russian underground criminal and prison communities.

Live by the Code, Die by the Code

Tattoos served as a way to differentiate people and mark specific qualities or life events. For example, for people imprisoned under the Soviet Gulag system, tattoos often served to separate outlaws and thieves from political prisoners.

No one really knows when the highly organized symbolic system or Russian prison tattoos first started. The practice of using tattoos to signify rank and status in the prison system grew in the early 1930s. Its’ peak was in the 1950s and the popularity declines by the end of the Soviet Union.

Russian Criminal Tattoos and Outlaw Symbols

As most prison tattoo codes around the world, Russian criminal tattoos were most likely enforced by strict gang guidelines. These unwritten, but very harsh rules include what and where inmates could tattoo on their bodies.

Russian criminal tattoos became rather intricate works of art. Looking at someone’s ink gives a good and detailed information about his crimes, but also a lot of background about their private life.

Crime and Punishment

The ethics of the Russian criminal underground dictates that one should earn his tattoos. Most noteworthy this happens through various, often physical acts of fighting against and standing up to authorities. One earns his ink either inside or outside of the prison system. If tattoos are not properly deserved, other criminals will attack the wearer and remove them forcibly. The person wearing such tattoos can suffer beatings or even worse…

Each Tattoo Tells a Distinctive Story

Tattoos tell different stories in more than one way. Images and specific designs can give detailed information about a person’s life and crimes. Placement is also very important. Sometimes a symbol will mean one thing if it is on the prisoner’s chest, and a very different thing if it’s on his leg.

For example, depending on the location on the body, a star symbol can tell a lot about the inmate’s  status. Stars worn on the knees are a sign of a criminal who commands respect, as the meaning is simple: “I’ll never get on my knees”.

Cultural Heritage

Nowadays, plenty of books and articles give a different perspective on the meaning of the tattoo symbols in Russian prisons. As tattooing grew popular among the general population in Russia and the countries from the former Soviet Union, these underground codes have lost their initial meaning.

Today, the criminal tattoo guidelines are no longer strictly followed. Inmates create their own images with varied meaning. Still, old-school Russian prison tattoos are fascinating and interesting to look at. Many tattoo artists utilize the raw style of these tattoos as an inspiration for their own designs.

Let’s take a look at some authentic tattoos from that era, as seen by photographer Arkadiy Bronnikov.