• Unspeakable Times

The Meanings Behind Common Russian Prison Tattoos

From the 1960s to 1980s, photographer Sergei Vasiliev and retired police officer Arkady Bronnikov documented tattoos on prisoners in the Soviet Union (now Russia), and their photos were compiled into several art books by FUEL Publishing. These prison tattoos continue a tradition that goes back decades. At first, a prisoner would be inked or branded 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 a criminal leader, 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.