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Russian Prison Tattoos

Updated on January 28, 2016

Prisons often contain highly defined subcultures with many subtle customs and mores that indicate where each individual stands within this unofficial system. One of the less subtle indicators is the tattoo, and one of the most interesting tattoo "languages" in the world's prison systems is the Russian prison tattoo. In American prisons, certain things-a teardrop by the eye, for example-can indicate crimes or status within a gang, but in Russian prisons, nearly every tattoo signifies some piece of history on the wearer, and many are evocative protests against the authorities and often against the Communist regime. False or unearned tattoos are often punished, ensuring that this language written on the body retains significance.

It is unknown how or when this complex visual language began; images as early as the 1920s show an intricate and developed system of tattooing. Many of the images are religious in basis, but not in meaning.

For example, images of cathedrals and monasteries are common, but, rather than representing houses of God, the number of spires atop the building is the number of years or prison terms that the prisoner has served.

A crucifix on the chest signifies that the wearer is a thief, and literally means "prince of thieves." It is considered a highly honorable tattoo.

The virgin Mary holding the Christ child means that the wearer has been a thief since they were very young.

Earlier in the century, images of Stalin and Lenin were tattooed over the heart and other vital organs are to prevent the prison guards from hitting or shooting the prisoner in that location-the guards would never deface such sacred images. Now that Communism has fallen and the sacredness of these images has also ebbed, these are used infrequently for this purpose, and images of Russian Icons have replaced the political ones as protective and sacred.

Other symbols include political ones, such as a swastika, which does not necessarily signify the wearer is a Nazi. It is a general tattoo of rebellion against Russian authority and can signify a life sentence.

Animals also carry meaning. A cat is the most common tattoo for thieves, and a snake around the neck and shoulders indicates the wearer feels the Communist party has a hold on them, or is strangling them. A spider indicates a drug addict, and a butterfly, if its body ends in a syringe, also indicates drug involvement. An eagle indicates a bandit, and a bull indicates a pimp.

The result of these images is a complex portrait or biography of the wearer; one fluent in the language of Russian prison tattoos can look at a prisoner and know where they have been and what they have done.

Alix Lambert's The Mark of Cain

 In 2007, an interesting documentary was released about the Russian prison system. Consisting mainly of interviews with prisoners, wardens, authorities, and criminologists, it covers a variety of subjects from the terrible food, tuberculosis epidemic, and cruelty inside the prison system in Russia. It also touches on the tattoos, the meanings, the changes in images after the fall of Communism, and the prisoners feelings about their own body art. There is wonderful footage of a tattooist on the inside who shows how he assembles his tattoo gun and film as he works on fellow inmates. It is well worth seeing to see these amazing images brought to life.

Reading tattoos in Eastern Promises

In pop culture, the movie Eastern Promises, starring Viggo Mortenson, explored the Russian mafia and expertly used the Russian prison tattoo to deepen the characters. Viggo sported several tattoos indicating he was a thief and had served time. Note the onion domes on his back indicating the terms of prison time he has served and the crucifix on his chest, proclaiming him "Prince of Thieves." Circumspect to the plot, these details lend authenticity and depth to his character in the movie.

Appendix

Many have asked for the symbol for "In life, count only on yourself." It is a circle with a dot in its center on the pinky finger (or fourth finger). It literally means "I am an orphan" or "In life, count only on yourself." You can see part of the tattoo in the sketch on the right.

There is a great guide to Russian Prison finger tattoos--it's the location where I finally found this information--in the newly re-issued Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia.

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    • organized living profile image

      Adrian Walker 8 years ago from Magnolia, AR

      Fascinating Article thankyou. I love this kind of research I will certinly be posting a link to this page on my website http://adrian.marketingwizard.walker.googlepages.c...

    • jonaitis profile image
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      jonaitis 8 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks organized living!

    • profile image

      DaMaGeD_GooDz 8 years ago

      I absolutely LOVE this hub! I remember watching a documentary on Russian prison tattoos and being completely fascinated. Tattoos fascinate me period, but there is so much depth not only woven into the inmates' tattooes but into inmate peers and the prison itself. You also did a great job with the research and finding some really amazing pictures. Once again, wicked hub!

    • jonaitis profile image
      Author

      jonaitis 8 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks so much Damaged Goodz! I think that Russian prison culture and the tyranny of the state definitely add to the depth of meaning of the tattoos as well.

    • profile image

      PATCHES 8 years ago

      As an actor I'm researching Russian Political Prisoner tattoos.

      I know that prisoners were given a coded tattoo that referenced their crime etc. but I can find no info on them on the internet. Any info on the numbering/lettering system used would be really appreciated

    • profile image

      deano 8 years ago

      could any body tell me wht the stars mean on the chest

    • profile image

      Sommer J 8 years ago

      Deano... the stars signify that the wearer has reached high rank in the gang or organization when placed on the shoulders, and when placed on the knees as well it also adds to the meaning to connote "I will kneel to NO one"

      Cheers

    • profile image

      Sommer J 8 years ago

      Hey jonaitis

      I have a tattoo I'm supposed to do for a customer, he wants the first finger symbol for "..in life only count on yourself..." Russian Criminal tatty, I can only find the reocccuring instance of it showing the guy sporting the tat hugging his woman with the accompanying drawing of what all the symbols on his fingers mean, but the one I need is cut off... do you happen to have any pics or links of this tattoo?

      Cheers and great thread

      Sommer

    • jdmanuk profile image

      jdmanuk 8 years ago from UK

      I definitely learned something new here. I wonder how this religious imagery started to get the new meanings?

    • profile image

      rocky 8 years ago

      i also am looking for the symbol for "In life, only count on yourself", i think by the sounds of it i am also seeing the same picture as you mate,

      if anyone could point me in the right direction to find this symbol i would greatly appreicate it

      great thread btw

      Rocky

    • jonaitis profile image
      Author

      jonaitis 8 years ago from San Francisco

      Hey all,

      I have done some research looking for the "In life, count only on yourself" symbol, and so far have found naught. If I find it, I will add the image above.

    • profile image

      Russian criminal tattoo blog 8 years ago

      Hey all

      you must be talk about God for everything is Judge.

      i think i have photos with this tattoo,one day i will posted on my blog.

    • profile image

      Tattoo Idea 7 years ago

      It's such a cool research and I've never seen before. It could definitely bring out one's unique identities. But for sure, not everyone suitable for it.

      Anyway, it's a bravo hubs. I like it very much, cheers~

    • profile image

      jacky 7 years ago

      hey nice pic

    • tattoo_design profile image

      tattoo_design 7 years ago

      That is so amazing...I've never seen these Russian prison tattoos before. Great hub, thank you so much for sharing this.

      Cheers

      Joe

    • profile image

      mazai 7 years ago

      Well my foreign friends, being raised as a young vor during our great times of communism I have lots of first hand experience in this particular field, so for interested parties I can vouch for this much more suitable source into Russian underworld. www.criminalnaya.ru

      In-terms of resume and bio tattoo meaning good site. www.tatuirovanie.ru

      PS: Unfortunately I saw "Eastern Promises" my thoughts are: so they are telling us that according to his 'onions'(called "kupala") dude got only a 3 stretch yet the tat is HUGE??? NO WAY, trust me you'll need at least 7 to 10 year resume to cover that much skin, keep in mind that most of those done by HAND at night, while 6 is looking out for guards, 3 years my ass. I must say I'm so F@CKING tiered of Hollywood Russian stereotypes; Do your research B4 feeding viewers BS, They get so close with other culture's mafia, but every-time I see Russian underworld mentioned in films they all talk using school girls lexicon with horrible accents, sporting BS insignia that might look good on film but sooo misleading. Why don't they just ask...

      «Ignoti nulla cupido»

      MAZAI

    • profile image

      MAZAI 7 years ago

      Also don't get confused between "Escape" and "Rely on Yourself" both look quite alike, the one on pic looks like "1 escape" you must look at all elements very careful, from the style shown above it would need one more circle around the dot to mean "Rely only on yourself".

      Oh and PLEASE We are not Yakudza, DO NOT TATTOO this just because you think its cool or it describes who you are, these must be tattooed in very specific places/circumstances, You can very easily get in LOTS of trouble or pain and even DEATH if you don't follow rules and just ink Russian jail tats as u please...

      Remain with best regards

      MAZAI

    • profile image

      raspotin 7 years ago

      chest stars the most ellit

    • GreatTattoosNow profile image

      GreatTattoosNow 7 years ago from San Jose

      Great hubpage you have here with nice details and exploration of Russian Prison Tattoos. Excellent. I have watched the video a few times on youtube. Very nice page

    • profile image

      tobyprosser 7 years ago

      @Deano

      starts on the chest symbolise high authority. think of them the same as army stripes. not every one is a seargant, you have to earn the stripes. stars are also tattooed on the knee caps to represent 'bow to no man".

    • amie50 profile image

      amie50 7 years ago

      very interesting and informative post...good job on your hub.

    • profile image

      Dr. Dre 6 years ago

      Just wondering is anyone can help and identify the meaning of the following Russian prison tattoos:

      - Eagle head with chain extending down, with roman helmet on the bottom and Hadi Takim written in text

      - Torso image of the Kavkaz rebel in traditional dress, white head covering and bullets around his shoulders

      Thanks a lot....

    • profile image

      nickolaii 6 years ago

      the two stars mean that he is a made man (that he is high in rank) also with the stars on the knees it menas he bows to no man

    • steve-bc-ca profile image

      steve-bc-ca 6 years ago from West Kelowna, BC, Canada

      Very informative hub with lots of great images and an excellent topic! Thanks jonaitis I'm looking forward to the rest of you hubs.

    • profile image

      Valeria13666 6 years ago

      Can anyone explain to me how to contact someone in the Mafia? I would love to interview someone, just have a couple drinks and talk about where I was born.

      I have mad respect for Russia and need to find out more about my past...

    • profile image

      dsfsdf 6 years ago

      I'm getting those star tats

    • profile image

      ruckiikanadienski 6 years ago

      Do not get those stars. You cannot get prison tattoos because you think they look cool. You might run into somebody who knows what they mean one day. Maybe it won't end well.

    • profile image

      Nick nack 6 years ago

      Those star tats means that you are a member of vory v zakone, i advise you not to do them.

    • profile image

      V13TCONG 6 years ago

      People laugh where I'm from when we see punks with star tattoos on their elbows... unless it's obvious you're a gangster of course

    • profile image

      makiavelli 6 years ago

      what would it mean if i got one of the stars on the back of my left hand

    • profile image

      Lifestyle 6 years ago

      Ok to all you "no it alls" here is a list for you research

      •the stars on chest mean you are untochable that's it its the highest rank u can go.

      •As far as stars on knees any common joe can get em it shows you don't bow down to atority. •

      THE cross he wears on his chest In thr movie does not mean he is a prince of theives he needs angels holding up the cross

      •A snake with a dagger or knife trew its head means you have killed your enemy

      •A rosery from your fourarm going down to ur middle finger witch has a cross at,the end means you have killed somebody

      HOPE THIS HAS HELPED FOR RESEARCH I JUST DON'T LIKE READING FALSE MEANINGS THAT TRICK YOU PPL IF YOU NEED MORE JUS POST A COMMENT THANKS

    • profile image

      erik 5 years ago

      @lifestyle i was wondering, does that mean even i could get stars on my knees? there is onthing more that i ''hate'' then to be told what to do, i don't like the government and i would actuly like to have something like that to remember how i felt now in my youth.

      and also, i'm looking to get a few finger rings on me. do youknow if i could get ''in life count only on your self''? i'm looking up every thing i can cause i have great respect for every tattoo culture out their.

    • profile image

      erik 5 years ago

      oh i forgot to ask you, what does the star on the right hand mean?

    • profile image

      Bruce 5 years ago

      Can anyone tell me the significance of three dots in the shape of a triangle and the word C inverted V OH (e.g. C/\OH)?

      Is it a symbol of rank?

    • profile image

      max 5 years ago

      There is actually an encyclopedia of all the prison tattoos in Russia. It was compiled by a prison guard. Part 1 and part3 sell for something like $20 each on amazon. Part 2 is closer to $100. If you guys are really interested you should purchase one.

    • profile image

      Yan 5 years ago

      To BRUCE. ???? The abreveations of each letter mean: Death to Cops From a Knife. If it's in a shape of a ring on a finger with any dots, it means that a man was raped in prison and is tattooed agains his will. Dots can be diferent shapes. Can be three dots in a row or three dots in a triangle. Or six dots like dice.

    • profile image

      Vanya 5 years ago

      C/\OH means "elephant" or the "rook" piece in chess.

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