Artwork By Lyla Elbaradie
You may have one or more tattoos across your body, as the popularity of tattoos has expanded around the world in recent years. For each person, tattoos can represent a wide variety of things, from pure aesthetic pleasure to deep memories. But it hasn’t always been this way.
In soviet prisons, nearly a century ago, inmates began to use tattoos as a means of communication. Whispers and rumours were hardly welcome in prisons. Tattoos served as passports and were therefore central to personal identity. Through tattoos, stories were told, often about one’s eerie past. If somebody had tattoos that told a false story and other inmates found out, they would typically remove the tattoo by violent means (in some cases, dismemberment). However, many times, prisoners were forced to erase them themselves, by any means. These repercussions alone show the importance of symbolic tattoo “passports” and their meanings.
Prisoners assumed a health risk when receiving tattoos in prison due to the unhygienic conditions of their environment. Tattooing was not allowed inside some prisons, and punishment by way of a savage beating was standard. The tools used for creating tattoos were rudimentary, dirty, and employed in a clandestine manner. For example, the ink was produced from the prisoner’s urine in addition to other substances. Unfortunately in many cases, the tattooed prisoners contracted diseases like tetanus or syphilis.
In Soviet prisons, tattoos were less associated with aesthetic appearance, but rather with symbolism. They were essentially a prisoner’s life story. So, when a new inmate arrived at the prison, other prisoners interviewed him with the objective of knowing the meaning of each tattoo, therefore verifying their stories. If they did not believe him, the new prisoner would have to get rid of the tattoos, again, by any means. With this method, prisoners knew everything they should know about him: where he came from, why he was in prison, his beliefs and ideas, his sexual orientation, etc. Once in prison, and depending on their role and status, they could add as many tattoos as they’d like to their bodies.
Let’s analyze some of these tattoos. First of all, to make known the number of times an inmate has been in prison, they would typically tattoo an orthodox cathedral on their chest, and the number of domes that the cathedral had, symbolized the number of sentences that the prisoner has served. It would also be represented with a cross in the knuckles for each time the person entered prison, or sometimes a sun with rays would be used to communicate the same thing.
The most interesting type of tattoo was often the one that explained the reason why the person was imprisoned. As the number of different crimes committed was huge, the diversity of this type of tattoo was also enormous. If the prisoner was a thief he would have tattooed on his body one of the following images: pirates, cats, sometimes wearing a hat or with keys, boats, or clowns (this image can also be associated with the murder of a policeman). If for instance the prisoner was a rapist, he would have tattoos of mermaids, a girl with her dress up, or daggers. If the prisoner was a murderer, he would have images of swords, knives, or skulls. However, if there was a knife on the prisoner’s throat, it would mean that he was a hitman. Usually, drops of blood were present around the knife, each of them representing a murder.
Tattoos were also used to signify the role or the authority that an inmate possessed while in prison. The most notable example is tattooed stars. If they were on the shoulders of prisoners, they represented the highest authority (“vor v zakone”, or Thief in Law, a term used to refer to someone as criminal authority), hence the rest of them would have to submit to his every order. The “vor v zakone” status could also be denoted through depictions of Jesus Christ on the cross, executioners, or straps on the shoulders. If stars were on the knees of a prisoner, it meant that he would never kneel before anyone. As well, Soviet military medals were used to represent opposition against the Soviet regime.
Two very peculiar types of tattoos used by prisoners were Lenin and Stalin’s faces. Prisoners believed that by having these tattoos authorities wouldn’t shoot them for fear of disfiguring the depiction of one of their leaders. However, this superstition was overcome by guards shooting prisoners in the head, thus leaving the images of their leaders intact.
In some cases tattoos were even forced upon inmates. The people that committed these cruel acts usually preyed upon the lower ranking prisoners and held them down as they tattooed swastikas and other unpleasant images. This marked victims of these horrors for life.
Tattoos were also used to state sexual preferences. In this regard, the most common tattoos were eyes below the abdomen, meaning you are sexually attracted to men. Having this tattoo on your body would let the rest of the inmates know what you were down for without having to utter a word.
Russian prison tattoos, as you can now see, have deep meanings and truly represent a person’s life story. Nowadays people will get a unicorn playing ping pong on their back and say they got it because “it looked cool”. People forgot the most important part about tattoos. They stand to communicate and tell people who they are and represent something much more profound than what society has transformed them into.
Baldaev, D. (2005). Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia (F. Rathjen, Trad.; 1a ed.).
Steidl.Murray, D. (Ed.). (2016). Russian criminal tattoo: Police files volume I. FUEL Publishing.