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The Cryptic Visual Language Of Russian Prison Tattoos

A Russian photographer spent decades documenting prisoner tattoos—now, his archive has been turned into a book.

  • <p>The Madonna and Child is a thieves’ talisman, acting as a guardian from misfortune and misery. It also means that the bearer has been a thief from an early age: ‘Prison is my home’; ‘A child of prison’.</p>
  • <p>Eight-pointed stars are the emblem of an ‘authoritative’ thief, one who is loyal to the thieves’ traditions. There are many variations of ‘thieves’ stars’. Lines placed between the points of the star mean that the bearer has been enlisted into the forces and has deserted to follow a criminal life; known as ‘gunners’, their tattoo literally means ‘I despise the army’.</p>
  • <p>This prisoner is a victim of syphilis and has suffered severe scarring to his face, eyes and mouth. In the prisons and colonies male or female prisoners suffering from venereal diseases (such as syphilis) are known as buketniki (bouquet holders). They are also nicknamed after army ranks, depending on how advanced their condition is, for example, ‘Kolka whored around without taking any precautions; yesterday the medic told me that he was already a “lieutenant”.’ (An inmate suffering from second-stage syphilis is known as a ‘colonel’, third-stage a ‘general’). There are cases where people have contracted syphilis, AIDS and tetanus while having tattoos made under insanitary prison conditions. Tattooing is forbidden in the prisons and camps. Prosecuted and punished severely by the authorities, the practice has acquired more status as it is pushed underground.</p>
  • <p>The ‘devils’ on the shoulders of this inmate symbolise a hatred of authority and the prison structure. This type of tattoo is known as an oskal (grin), a baring of teeth towards the system. They are sometimes accompanied by anti-Soviet texts.</p>
  • <p>Text on the arm reads ‘Thank you Dear Motherland for my ruined youth’.<br />
A dagger through the neck shows that a criminal has committed murder in prison and is available to hire for further killing. The drops of blood can signify the number of murders committed.<br />
Lenin is held by many criminals to be the chief pakhan (boss) of the Communist Party. The letters BOP, which are sometimes tattooed under his image, carry a double meaning. The acronym stands for ‘Leader of the October Revolution’ but also spells the Russian word VOR (thief).</p>
  • <p>Text across the chest reads ‘He who is not with me is against me’.<br />
The swastika and Nazi symbols may mean that the owner has fascist sympathies, though they are more usually made as a protest and display of aggression  towards the prison or camp administration. During the Soviet period the authorities often removed these tattoos by force either surgically or by using an etching method. A tattoo of a mermaid can indicate a sentence for rape of a minor, or child molestation. In prison jargon the nickname for a person who commits this type of crime is amurik meaning ‘cupid’, lohmatii ‘shaggy’, or a universal ‘all rounder’. They are ‘lowered’ in status by being forcibly sodomised by other prisoners, sometimes in groups.</p>
  • <p>Text above the cross reads ‘O Lord, Save and Protect your servant Viktor’, text beneath reads ‘God do not judge me by my deeds but by your mercy’. Text above the waist reads ‘I fuck poverty and misfortune’.<br />
The skull and crossbones show that the prisoner is serving a life term. The single eight-pointed star denotes that he is a ‘semi-authority’ among thieves. The girl ‘catching’ her dress with a fishing line on his left forearm is a tattoo worn by hooligans and rapists. The snake coiled around human remains (positioned on the middle third of each arm) is a variation on an old thieves’ tattoo. The snake is a symbol of temptation; here the snake’s head has been replaced by that of a woman: the temptress. Tattooed on the right side of the stomach is a version of Judith (1504) as painted by Giorgione: this is intended as a symbol of a scheming, seductive woman who betrays a noble man.</p>
  • <p>The dollar bills, skyscrapers and machine gun with the initials ‘US’ stamped on it convey this inmate’s love for the American mafia-like lifestyle. The eyes signify ‘I’m watching over you’ (the other inmates in the prison or camp).</p>
  • <p>overleaf: On the arm beneath the skull is the Latin phrase Memento Mori meaning ‘Remember that you will die’.<br />
The double-headed eagle is a Russian state symbol that dates back to the 15th century and was used by Peter the Great. In 1993, after the fall of Communism, it replaced the hammer and sickle as the coat of arms of the Russian Federation. This photograph taken in the Soviet period shows this emblem tattooed as a bold symbol of power and rage against the USSR. It can also be interpreted as ‘Russia for the Russians’ or ‘For a Russia without Yids, Wogs and Marxist-Leninists’. The Statue of Liberty implies a longing for freedom, while the dark character holding a gun denotes a readiness to commit violence and murder. The eyes on the chest signify ‘I can see everything’ and ‘I am watching’, the powerful tattoo of a criminal ‘overseer’. The eight-pointed stars tattooed on the shoulders mark the bearer as an ‘authoritative’ thief.</p>
  • <p>Text on the right arm reads ‘Save love, keep freedom’. Text on the left arm reads ‘Sinner’. Text across the chest reads ‘To each his own’. Text underneath the skulls reads ‘God against everyone, everyone against God’. Text on the wrist in German reads Mein Gott ‘My God’.<br />
A cowboy with a gun shows this thief is prepared to take risks and is ready to exploit any opportunity. A dove carrying a twig (left shoulder) is a symbol of good tidings and deliverance from suffering.</p>
  • <p>The stars on the shoulders denote an authoritative thief. The rose on the chest means he turned eighteen while in prison. The acronym ‘SOS’ on the right forearm variously stands for Spasite Ot Syda (Save me from judgment); Spasayus Ot Suk (I saved myself from the bitches)*; Spasayus Ot Sifilisa (Saved from syphilis); Spasi, Otets, Syna (Save me, father, your son); Suki Otnyali Svobodu (Bitches robbed my freedom).</p>
  • <p>Text on the chest reads ‘Save and protect’. Text either side of the cross reads ‘XV’ Hristos Voskres (Christ has Risen).<br />
The eight-pointed stars on the clavicles denote a high-ranking thief. A bow tie tattooed on the neck is often found in strict regime colonies. Originally bow ties were a dishonourable tattoo. They were forcibly applied underneath the clavicle cat tattoos of pickpockets who had broken the ‘thieves’ code’ and sided with the authorities. Today, however, there is no stigma attached to them. The dollar sign on the bow tie shows the bearer is either a safecracker, money launderer or has been convicted for the theft of state property.</p>
  • <p>This tattoo is a variation on the myth of Pometheus who, after tricking Zeus, is chained to a rock in eternal punishment. The sailing ship with white sails means the bearer does not engage in normal work, he is a travelling thief who is prone to escape.</p>
  • <p>A snake around the neck is a sign of drug addiction. Most inmates are either alcoholics or substance abusers. Their crimes are often committed while in a state of intoxication. The stars on the clavicles and epaulettes on the shoulders show that this inmate is an authority. The trousers worn by the inmate are part of the uniform of a special regime colony, the strictest type of regime in the Soviet Union. Criminals sent here are known as osobo opasnim retsidivistom (especially dangerous recidivists), who have carried out grave offences such as murder or paedophilia. They are assigned to harsher and more restricted regimes of detention than other prisoners, and are not subject to be released on parole.</p>
  • <p>The stars on the shoulders show that this inmate is a criminal ‘authority’. The medals are awards that existed before the Revolution and as such are a sign of antagonism and defiance towards the Soviet regime. The eyes on the stomach denote a homosexual (the penis makes the ‘nose’ of the face).</p>
  • <p>Images of monasteries, churches, cathedrals, the Virgin Mary, saints and angels predominantly found on the chest and back display a devotion to the world of thieves and its customs. The skulls tattooed on this inmate, sometimes seen with an angel flying away, indicate a conviction for murder. The coffin also represents a murder, they are burying the victim.</p>
  • <p>The design of epaulettes tattooed on to the shoulders is adapted either from a pre-Revolutionary uniform or an existing Soviet one; both indicate the bearer has a negative attitude towards the system. They are worn by high-ranking criminals who might also have a corresponding nickname such as ‘major’ or ‘colonel’. Epaulettes with three little stars or skulls are deciphered as: ‘I am not a slave of the camps, no one can force me to work’; ‘I am captive, but I was born free’; ‘I’m a colonel of the zone – I will not sully my hands with a wheelbarrow’; ‘The strong win – the weak die’; ‘Horses die from work’.</p>
  • <p>Text on the arm reads ‘Remember me, don’t forget me’ and ‘I waited 15 years for you’.<br />
This man is a Muslim. On his stomach (left) is a religious building with a crescent moon; his features also indicate that he is not Russian. He is not an authoritative thief, but has tried to imitate them with his tattoos to increase his standing within the prison. The lighthouse on his right arm denotes a pursuit of freedom. Each wrist manacle indicates a sentence of more than five years in prison.</p>
  • 01 /18

    The Madonna and Child is a thieves’ talisman, acting as a guardian from misfortune and misery. It also means that the bearer has been a thief from an early age: ‘Prison is my home’; ‘A child of prison’.

  • 02 /18

    Eight-pointed stars are the emblem of an ‘authoritative’ thief, one who is loyal to the thieves’ traditions. There are many variations of ‘thieves’ stars’. Lines placed between the points of the star mean that the bearer has been enlisted into the forces and has deserted to follow a criminal life; known as ‘gunners’, their tattoo literally means ‘I despise the army’.

  • 03 /18

    This prisoner is a victim of syphilis and has suffered severe scarring to his face, eyes and mouth. In the prisons and colonies male or female prisoners suffering from venereal diseases (such as syphilis) are known as buketniki (bouquet holders). They are also nicknamed after army ranks, depending on how advanced their condition is, for example, ‘Kolka whored around without taking any precautions; yesterday the medic told me that he was already a “lieutenant”.’ (An inmate suffering from second-stage syphilis is known as a ‘colonel’, third-stage a ‘general’). There are cases where people have contracted syphilis, AIDS and tetanus while having tattoos made under insanitary prison conditions. Tattooing is forbidden in the prisons and camps. Prosecuted and punished severely by the authorities, the practice has acquired more status as it is pushed underground.

  • 04 /18

    The ‘devils’ on the shoulders of this inmate symbolise a hatred of authority and the prison structure. This type of tattoo is known as an oskal (grin), a baring of teeth towards the system. They are sometimes accompanied by anti-Soviet texts.

  • 05 /18

    Text on the arm reads ‘Thank you Dear Motherland for my ruined youth’.
    A dagger through the neck shows that a criminal has committed murder in prison and is available to hire for further killing. The drops of blood can signify the number of murders committed.
    Lenin is held by many criminals to be the chief pakhan (boss) of the Communist Party. The letters BOP, which are sometimes tattooed under his image, carry a double meaning. The acronym stands for ‘Leader of the October Revolution’ but also spells the Russian word VOR (thief).

  • 06 /18

    Text across the chest reads ‘He who is not with me is against me’.
    The swastika and Nazi symbols may mean that the owner has fascist sympathies, though they are more usually made as a protest and display of aggression towards the prison or camp administration. During the Soviet period the authorities often removed these tattoos by force either surgically or by using an etching method. A tattoo of a mermaid can indicate a sentence for rape of a minor, or child molestation. In prison jargon the nickname for a person who commits this type of crime is amurik meaning ‘cupid’, lohmatii ‘shaggy’, or a universal ‘all rounder’. They are ‘lowered’ in status by being forcibly sodomised by other prisoners, sometimes in groups.

  • 07 /18

    Text above the cross reads ‘O Lord, Save and Protect your servant Viktor’, text beneath reads ‘God do not judge me by my deeds but by your mercy’. Text above the waist reads ‘I fuck poverty and misfortune’.
    The skull and crossbones show that the prisoner is serving a life term. The single eight-pointed star denotes that he is a ‘semi-authority’ among thieves. The girl ‘catching’ her dress with a fishing line on his left forearm is a tattoo worn by hooligans and rapists. The snake coiled around human remains (positioned on the middle third of each arm) is a variation on an old thieves’ tattoo. The snake is a symbol of temptation; here the snake’s head has been replaced by that of a woman: the temptress. Tattooed on the right side of the stomach is a version of Judith (1504) as painted by Giorgione: this is intended as a symbol of a scheming, seductive woman who betrays a noble man.

  • 08 /18

    The dollar bills, skyscrapers and machine gun with the initials ‘US’ stamped on it convey this inmate’s love for the American mafia-like lifestyle. The eyes signify ‘I’m watching over you’ (the other inmates in the prison or camp).

  • 09 /18

    overleaf: On the arm beneath the skull is the Latin phrase Memento Mori meaning ‘Remember that you will die’.
    The double-headed eagle is a Russian state symbol that dates back to the 15th century and was used by Peter the Great. In 1993, after the fall of Communism, it replaced the hammer and sickle as the coat of arms of the Russian Federation. This photograph taken in the Soviet period shows this emblem tattooed as a bold symbol of power and rage against the USSR. It can also be interpreted as ‘Russia for the Russians’ or ‘For a Russia without Yids, Wogs and Marxist-Leninists’. The Statue of Liberty implies a longing for freedom, while the dark character holding a gun denotes a readiness to commit violence and murder. The eyes on the chest signify ‘I can see everything’ and ‘I am watching’, the powerful tattoo of a criminal ‘overseer’. The eight-pointed stars tattooed on the shoulders mark the bearer as an ‘authoritative’ thief.

  • 10 /18

    Text on the right arm reads ‘Save love, keep freedom’. Text on the left arm reads ‘Sinner’. Text across the chest reads ‘To each his own’. Text underneath the skulls reads ‘God against everyone, everyone against God’. Text on the wrist in German reads Mein Gott ‘My God’.
    A cowboy with a gun shows this thief is prepared to take risks and is ready to exploit any opportunity. A dove carrying a twig (left shoulder) is a symbol of good tidings and deliverance from suffering.

  • 11 /18

    The stars on the shoulders denote an authoritative thief. The rose on the chest means he turned eighteen while in prison. The acronym ‘SOS’ on the right forearm variously stands for Spasite Ot Syda (Save me from judgment); Spasayus Ot Suk (I saved myself from the bitches)*; Spasayus Ot Sifilisa (Saved from syphilis); Spasi, Otets, Syna (Save me, father, your son); Suki Otnyali Svobodu (Bitches robbed my freedom).

  • 12 /18

    Text on the chest reads ‘Save and protect’. Text either side of the cross reads ‘XV’ Hristos Voskres (Christ has Risen).
    The eight-pointed stars on the clavicles denote a high-ranking thief. A bow tie tattooed on the neck is often found in strict regime colonies. Originally bow ties were a dishonourable tattoo. They were forcibly applied underneath the clavicle cat tattoos of pickpockets who had broken the ‘thieves’ code’ and sided with the authorities. Today, however, there is no stigma attached to them. The dollar sign on the bow tie shows the bearer is either a safecracker, money launderer or has been convicted for the theft of state property.

  • 13 /18

    This tattoo is a variation on the myth of Pometheus who, after tricking Zeus, is chained to a rock in eternal punishment. The sailing ship with white sails means the bearer does not engage in normal work, he is a travelling thief who is prone to escape.

  • 14 /18

    A snake around the neck is a sign of drug addiction. Most inmates are either alcoholics or substance abusers. Their crimes are often committed while in a state of intoxication. The stars on the clavicles and epaulettes on the shoulders show that this inmate is an authority. The trousers worn by the inmate are part of the uniform of a special regime colony, the strictest type of regime in the Soviet Union. Criminals sent here are known as osobo opasnim retsidivistom (especially dangerous recidivists), who have carried out grave offences such as murder or paedophilia. They are assigned to harsher and more restricted regimes of detention than other prisoners, and are not subject to be released on parole.

  • 15 /18

    The stars on the shoulders show that this inmate is a criminal ‘authority’. The medals are awards that existed before the Revolution and as such are a sign of antagonism and defiance towards the Soviet regime. The eyes on the stomach denote a homosexual (the penis makes the ‘nose’ of the face).

  • 16 /18

    Images of monasteries, churches, cathedrals, the Virgin Mary, saints and angels predominantly found on the chest and back display a devotion to the world of thieves and its customs. The skulls tattooed on this inmate, sometimes seen with an angel flying away, indicate a conviction for murder. The coffin also represents a murder, they are burying the victim.

  • 17 /18

    The design of epaulettes tattooed on to the shoulders is adapted either from a pre-Revolutionary uniform or an existing Soviet one; both indicate the bearer has a negative attitude towards the system. They are worn by high-ranking criminals who might also have a corresponding nickname such as ‘major’ or ‘colonel’. Epaulettes with three little stars or skulls are deciphered as: ‘I am not a slave of the camps, no one can force me to work’; ‘I am captive, but I was born free’; ‘I’m a colonel of the zone – I will not sully my hands with a wheelbarrow’; ‘The strong win – the weak die’; ‘Horses die from work’.

  • 18 /18

    Text on the arm reads ‘Remember me, don’t forget me’ and ‘I waited 15 years for you’.
    This man is a Muslim. On his stomach (left) is a religious building with a crescent moon; his features also indicate that he is not Russian. He is not an authoritative thief, but has tried to imitate them with his tattoos to increase his standing within the prison. The lighthouse on his right arm denotes a pursuit of freedom. Each wrist manacle indicates a sentence of more than five years in prison.

Tattoos occupy myriad places in our culture, whether as works of art, the future of wearable tech, reality-show fodder, or just reminders of our terrible decisions. But for Arkady Bronnikov—a criminologist with an expertise in tattoo iconography—tattoos are the secret language of Russia's criminal underbelly.

Bronnikov worked as a professor at the Moscow Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and as part of his research between 1963 and 1991 he interviewed prisoners across the former Soviet Union to uncover the coded language and symbolism of the tattoos festooned on their bodies. A new book from Artbook/D.A.P. due out in March chronicles his work.

Bronnikov spent decades photographing criminals and their body art to build an image archive that helped investigators make sense of the social dynamics and hierarchies in prisons and even solve crimes. He found that upwards of 70% of criminals in minimum-security prisons had tattoos; in medium-security prisons the figure jumped to 80%; in maximum security prisons it was between 95% and 98%.

Most of the prisoners he spoke with said they started getting tattoos after they committed crimes and many of them received their tattoos in prison. As Bronnikov describes in the book:

Tattooing methods in prisons are primitive and painful. The convict often makes the tattoo himself, and the process can take several years to complete. A single small figure, for example, can be created in four to six hours of uninterrupted work. The instrument of choice is an adapted electric shaver to which prisoners add needles and an ampule with liquid dye. Scorched rubber mixed with urine is used for pigment. Dubious sanitation creates serious health complications, including gangrene and tetanus, but the most common problem is lymphadenitis, an inflammation of the lymph nodes accompanied by fever and chills.

He found that every aspect of a tattoo could be coded with meaning. Thieves chose to place cross tattoos on their chests. A black-and-white diamond signified someone who pled non-guilty, but was convicted. A snake around someone's neck stood for substance addiction. Some incarcerated individuals had portraits of loved ones on their bodies. The placement of a tattoo has significance, for example facial tattoos often resulted from losing a bet.

"Tattoos are a passport and biography; they reflect the convict’s interests, his outlook on life, his world view," Bronnikov writes. "There are certain ‘distinguished’ tattoos that a convict earns the right to wear—visible signs of his authority and prestige. A prisoner has nothing of his own, no decent clothes, only the changeless prison garb. The only thing that belongs to him is his body and because of this it can be violated, bartered, or turned into a picture gallery."

Spy a few of Bronnikov's photographs in the slide show above and pre-order the book from DAP.

All Photos: Arkady Bronnikov courtesy FUEL Publishing

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