Secrets Written on the Skin: Russian Prison Tattoos
Throughout history, those shunned by society have sought unity amongst themselves by creating a language of allegiance and ranking through the ink embedded in their skin.
Criminals and convicts all over the world have come together to create their own language by tattooing symbols onto themselves as a way to communicate what they have done and show others that they are not afraid or ashamed.
There is nowhere else on Earth where that is more true than in the Russian prison system. Every prisoner is marked, every drop of ink holds meaning, and the symbols are a language in and of themselves. Each body tells a unique story of time served and crimes committed.
Moscow is Russia’s largest city, and it is rampant with criminal activity. The prison system is known as the “Zone,” and the prisons are grossly overcrowded. There are typically 100 inmates jammed into a cell, and they have to take turns sleeping due to limited space and bunks. This overcrowding is used as a means to “break” the inmates, causing them to turn on one another and encouraging beatings in the cells. Russian prisons are well-known for being dangerous and violent, ignoring humanity in favor of strict punishment.
Almost every resident of Moscow knows someone that has been to prison, or has been sent there themselves. In the years after World War II, petty crimes were severely punished, and a citizen could wind up with a prison sentence of 5 to 10 years for a crime as minimal as stealing a loaf of bread.
The History of Russian Prison Tattoos
Russian prison tattoos got their start in the 19th century when the government began tattooing the phrase “KAT” onto the faces of those convicted of a crime and sent to jail. This slang term was short for the Russian word for criminal, and was used to show society that the person wearing the tattoo had been to prison. It marked them as dangerous men, and kept them separate from the rest of the residents of Russia.
Before too long, prisoners became proud of the marking, as it showed the world that they were not to be messed with. In the 1900s, prisoners began tattooing themselves with more complex images while serving their time, as they were determined to show the world who they were, and not be pigeonholed by the government. They wanted to take the authority out of the hands of those in charge by making a practice that was intended as a punishment into something that they were proud of and chose to do for themselves.
These prison tattoos were soon banned by the authorities, and were forced into the unsanitary underground, created with whatever tools that were available to the prisoners, including ink made from burned rubber from boot heels mixed with their own urine. The prisoners used urine in order to gain whatever available antiseptic properties that they could, as they wanted to avoid infection. The prisoner receiving the tattoo must be the one to donate his own urine for the process, or risk being labeled a homosexual by the other inmates.
A complex prison hierarchy arose in the form of a gang known as the “Thieves in Law,” and the members used tattoos to communicate rank and levels of respect. Tattoos were used to maintain control of the weaker prisoners through an intricate language of tattoos.
The images worn by the Thieves in Law showed what deeds had been committed to land them in prison, their ranking in the gang, and how long they had been behind bars. The more tattoos an inmate had, the longer he had been in prison, and the more respect that he received.
The weakest amongst the hierarchy were dubbed the “Down Casts,” and they were held in contempt by the other prisoners, being made to use separate cutlery and sit apart from the others. Once a prisoner was marked as a Down Cast, it was virtually impossible for them to rise above that status.
Tattoos became very important amongst the inmates, but they had to be earned. If a new prisoner was brought in and known to never have served time, yet wore the markings of the Thieves in Law, they were usually killed on sight.
Prisoners were also made to stand by their tattoos, being asked when they arrived if they believed in their tattoos, and if they hesitated even slightly, they were faced with the option of being raped and killed, or removing their tattoos with a brick or a razor.
The different tattoo designs were used to convey different meanings, giving the prisoners a silent language amongst themselves.
In the beginning, images of Stalin and Lenin tattooed on the abdomen were popular, as prisoners believed that the authorities were less likely to put a man with the images of their leaders marked on them permanently in front of a firing squad. Unfortunately for those men, this didn’t work as they were usually shot in the back of the head.
The complexity and importance of tattoos rose with the power of the Thieves in Law, turning prisoners into illustrated men, and showing their life stories in ink.
Russian Prison Tattoos Decoded
There are many different tattoos that are used in the Russian prison system, and we were able to learn their secret meanings thanks to a guard that began recording and decoding the various tattoos of the prisoners that he came in contact with. This guard took photos of the tattoos and recorded them in an encyclopedia with the KGB’s consent and support. This three volume collection of prison tattoos in Russia gave the authorities and the general public insight into the meaning behind the most popular designs.
Tattoo designs aren’t just important for their images — they can also have different meanings depending on where they are placed on the body. For example, the image of a woman on the chest means that the prisoner is a life-long thief, while the image of a woman placed on the stomach means that the prisoner is a prostitute.
Some of the most notorious and popular prison tattoo designs include:
The most integral and important prison tattoo design is that of the “Thieves Star,” which has 8 points, and shows the status of the prisoner that wears it, based upon where it is placed on the body.
Those with Thieves Stars on their knees command respect, and are worn by high-ranking members of the Thieves in Law. The placement of the star tattoos indicates that those bearing them would never get on their knees for anyone, and usually made them a target for prison authorities, as they were known to be men of bravado and strength. Stars on the chest convey an even higher ranking and only the most respected earn the right to have them.
A traditional symbol for a thief, these tattoos usually have the cat wearing a hat as an homage to Puss in Boots, and have the abbreviation “KOT” underneath the image. This stands for “native prison resident,” and indicates a chronic inmate. Men that bear these tattoos have been in and out of the prison system their entire lives.
Churches and Cathedrals
Also used to convey that the prisoner wearing this image is a thief, churches are usually placed on the chest, and the number of cupolas on the building itself indicates the number of times that the inmate has been to prison before — one dome for each sentence.
The image of a sun with multiple beams shooting from it shows that the inmate has been arrested multiple times before, and the number of individual beams indicates the number of prison terms and their lengths. The use of setting suns, especially with the image of a flying bird, indicates the desire for freedom.
Indicating that the prisoner wearing them are murders, the image of a skull represents both the death of the victim, as well as that of the perpetrator, since murder was once a crime that was punished by death. Even though the death sentence was abolished in Russia in 1947, being replaced by an additional 10 years of prison time, criminals were not deterred and there was a spike in the murder rate, leading to an influx of prisoners with skull tattoos. When a skull is placed inside a square on an inmates’ finger, it indicates that he has been convicted of robbery. Skulls can also indicate rebellion against the government, as it is a symbol for baring teeth at the system.
The traditional “thieves cross” was usually placed on the chest, and was meant to indicate that the prisoner had accepted his crime and was not afraid to face God. When placed on the knees, it was also meant to convey fearlessness and not being willing to kneel before anyone but God himself.
The image of a ship tattooed on a prisoner usually indicated that he had made an attempt to flee justice before being brought to prison, but it could also mean that the inmate had lived the life of a nomadic thief, travelling to commit his crimes and finding new opportunities to steal from his victims.
A prisoner with a dragon tattoo was known to be a man that had stolen property from the government or a large group, and was seen as a “shark,” or an opportunistic and recklessly dangerous thief with no concern for the large punishment that would surely come from stealing from the state.
Used to indicate the level of a criminal’s activity and his lifestyle choices, a man with the tattoo of a spider facing up was still looking to continue with his life of crime, while a spider that was facing down showed that the man had repented for his crimes and had left the criminal life.
The image of a beetle tattooed on the hands indicates that the prisoner is a pickpocket.
Prisoners with the tattoo of a snarling tiger are known to show aggression to authorities, and have usually spent time in solitary for an attack on a guard, or has wound up in prison for attacking a police officer.
Snarling dogs are used to show a high level of disrespect for authorities, and a grudge against the government as a whole.
A prisoner with a dagger appearing to go through his neck has committed murder while in prison, and is available for hire as a hitman to the other prisoners. A dagger surrounded with barbed wire or a rose meant that the prisoner had first been incarcerated before the age of 18, and was most likely a lifetime criminal.
Medals or Epaulettes
Symbols of military rank are used to show rank in the Thieves in Law, or contempt for the military and governmental systems. Prisoners with epaulettes tattooed on their shoulders are known officers in the Thieves in Law, and could be identified by their rank as either Lieutenant, Captain, or various other positions in the gang’s hierarchy.
Tattoos placed around the wrists in the design of a bracelet or strap are meant to show that the prisoner wearing them have spent at least 5 years behind bars.
Traditionally used to indicate a senior authority figure in the prison gang system, prisoners bearing the image of an eagle were not men to be messed with.
A tattoo to be taken very seriously, the presence of a hooded executioner not only indicated that the prisoner bearing this design was a murderer, but that he had committed the serious act of killing someone within his own family.
Used to indicate a long sentence, usually without the chance of parole, bells are placed on the most hardened of prisoners. Whether they received their life sentence for the severity of their crime, or due to causing trouble and being uncooperative with authorities during their time in prison, bells are used to indicate that the man wearing the tattoo is never going to be free again. They can also be a symbol for a thief that has stolen from the church.
Prisoners that wear a tattoo of barbed wire are telling the world that they received a life sentence without the chance of parole and will die in prison. Most commonly seen on the forehead.
Demons and Monsters
Used to intimidate other prisoners, tattoos of demons or monsters indicate that the prisoner is higher up in the prison hierarchy, and is a man that will use force when confronted or to get what he wants.
The most popular of the religious symbols is a portrait of the Madonna and Christ child, which indicates the inmate considers prison to be their home. It is also used as a talisman of protection against trouble and injuries while in prison, and can indicate that the prisoner started their life of crime at a very early age.
When placed on the chest, eyes are used to convey that the inmate is watching over the other prisoners and always keeps his eyes open to prevent being ambushed. When on the stomach or the buttocks, eyes are meant to indicate that the inmate is a homosexual.
Circles and Dots
A circle with the letter A inside indicates that the prisoner is a proponent of anarchy and the abolishment of government and rules of any kind. A circle with a single dot inside shows that the inmate is an orphan, both in life and in the prison system, and doesn’t trust anyone but himself. The appearance of 5 dots on the hand indicated that the person with that tattoo had been in the Zone. It was meant to symbolize the watch towers that encircled the prison and the prisoner himself.
Dots on the face are usually “forced” tattoos, which means that the prisoner was held down and tattooed forcibly by other inmates. This is usually done as a punishment or an indicator of a weak prisoner.
A dot on the forehead or chin shows that the inmate is a “rat,” and he has turned another prisoner in for committing an act forbidden by the prison authorities, and has sided with them over his fellow inmates.
Dots under the eyes or in the corner of the mouth means that the prisoner is a passive homosexual that is willing to trade sexual acts for favors or to prevent being preyed on by more powerful inmates. These types of tattoos are often called “beauty marks.”
Tattoos Outside of the Prison System
Even though the tattoos found within the Russian prison system are done with homemade tools such as sharpened guitar strings, and are used to tell the stories of lives of crime, they hold a skillful beauty. Many people consider the tattoos to be an intricate art form, and they are usually much more detailed than the prison tattoos that are found in other countries, which tend to be much more rudimentary.
Tattoo artists in prison are called “prickers,” and talented artists are in such high demand that many prisoners will transfer into another unit or even an entirely new prison just to have access to a well-known pricker.
Tattoos are so popular and important to the way of life behind bars that inmates are always looking to have new ink done, even though it is banned by the authorities. Prison guards take the disobedient act of tattooing very seriously, and punish the prisoners that are caught doing it severely. They are beaten, sometimes within inches of life, and thrown into the prison’s solitary unit, often not receiving any treatment for their injuries.
Even after being punished for practicing the art of tattooing in prison, many reformed criminals choose to become tattoo artists after finishing their prison sentences, although they never use the designs that they learned in prison in the outside world. The artists know that those images are sacred, and should be used only within the dangerous and violent world of the Zone.
Many times, the only career that a former inmate can have is that of a tattoo artist, as the tattoos that they received in prison can make it difficult to find work, especially when their ink marks them as a thief.
It isn’t just men that go to prison and receive tattoos, women are also tattooed in prison, although not to the same extent as male convicts. They also use their tattoos as a secret language, showing their fellow prisoners what they did to wind up in prison and how long they have been behind bars.
Russian children are also known to become impressed with the tattoos that they see on released prisoners and make their own attempts at tattooing, which usually ends up in a life of crime in their future. Convicts are seen as men to be respected in Russia, and many young people are drawn to committing crimes of their own.
Since Russia has such strict punishments for all crimes, many times a life of crime is started with an act as simple as vandalism, and punished by years in prison. There is no real juvenile justice system in Russia, and underage criminals are treated almost as the same as their adult counterparts. When the young convicts are released, they have done hard time with real criminals, and increased their likelihood of continuing in a life of crime.
The secret world of Russian prison tattoos is rich with meaning, aggression, and violence, yet it is also full of skill and even art. It has been studied by many people, with books and documentary films showcasing the mysterious and intriguing life of the Russian prisoner and their tattoos.
Even though Russian prison tattoos are invariably linked with crime, they are still fascinating to many types of people from around the world, and will most likely continue to be studied for many years to come.