Russian Prison Tattoos
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.
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.