crime The Meanings Behind Common Russian Prison Tattoos  

Mike Rothschild
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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.