crime The Meanings Behind Common Russian Prison Tattoos

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After the fall of the Soviet Union, photographers Sergei Vasiliev and Arkady Bronnikov documented Russian criminal tattoos, and their photos were compiled into several art books by FUEL publishing. These prison tattoos continue a tradition that goes all the way back to before the Communist Revolution. In those days, a prisoner would be inked with a series of letters that denoted his crime and where he served his sentence. That system grew into an elaborate code that showed what someone had done, how long they'd served, their rank in the prison hierarchy, and if they could be trusted.

The designs of Russian prison tattoos include elaborate religious scenes that denote if the wearer is a legitimate thief, stars that denote rank and time served, elaborate codes in multiple languages, and images of defiance against prison authority. A trained observer can tell everything about a Russian prisoner by their tattoos.

So what do Russian mafia tattoos mean? Read through this list of tattoos of Russian criminals to find out.

Snake Around the Neck


Snake Around the Neck is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Meanings Behind Common Russian Prison Tattoos
Photo:  © Arkady Bronnikov / FUEL Publishing
The snake around the neck is a sign of being addicted to drugs.

Knife Through the Neck


Knife Through the Neck is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Meanings Behind Common Russian Prison Tattoos
Photo:  © Sergei Vasiliev / FUEL Publishing
A tattoo of a knife through the neck on a Russian prisoner means they have committed murder while behind bars, and they're available for hire to kill again.

Eyes on the Upper Chest


Eyes on the Upper Chest is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Meanings Behind Common Russian Prison Tattoos
Photo:  © Sergei Vasiliev / FUEL Publishing
Even something as simple as eyes can have multiple meanings. Tattooed higher on the body, they indicate the wearer is an enforcer, watching out for infractions of prisoner law. This could be cooperating with authorities, stealing from a higher-ranked prisoner, or welching on a wager.

Roaring Tiger


Roaring Tiger is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Meanings Behind Common Russian Prison Tattoos
Photo:  © Sergei Vasiliev / FUEL Publishing
A roaring tiger tattooed on a Russian inmate can signify someone hostile to prison authorities. They were usually tattooed on inmates who proudly chafed against the guards or Commandant.

Epaulets on Shoulders


Epaulets on Shoulders is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Meanings Behind Common Russian Prison Tattoos
Photo:  © Sergei Vasiliev / FUEL Publishing
Like a military uniform, epaulets on a prisoner's shoulders indicate rank, position, and experience. Having multiple stars denotes someone deeply respected and who has fought with the authorities. The skull indicated strength - as in, the weak will die. These particular designs are patterned after 19th-century Russian officer's uniforms, indicating defiance of the Communist state.

Church Domes


Church Domes is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Meanings Behind Common Russian Prison Tattoos
Photo:  © Arkady Bronnikov / FUEL Publishing
Tattoos of the iconic "onion domes" of Russian churches denote either the number of years in a sentence or, for a career criminal, how many times they've been sent to prison. The church itself usually indicates that the wearer is a thief.

Eyes on the Stomach


Eyes on the Stomach is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Meanings Behind Common Russian Prison Tattoos
Photo:  © Sergei Vasiliev / FUEL Publishing
A prisoner with eyes tattooed on his stomach has likely been branded as a homosexual.

Nazi Tattoos


Nazi Tattoos is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Meanings Behind Common Russian Prison Tattoos
Photo:  © Arkady Bronnikov / FUEL Publishing
Nazi iconography like swastikas or the Iron Cross usually denotes defiance toward prison officials. For decades, such tattoos were forcibly removed from inmates, and their application now indicates the inmate believes the warden is a fascist.