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.

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

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.