BBC Culture

Secret meanings of Russian prisoner tattoos

  • Big brother is watching

    A new book features 180 photographs of Russian prisoner tattoos from official police files. Collected over a period of 30 years by Arkady Bronnikov, a criminal expert at the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs from 1963 to 1991, they include images of skulls, angels, sailing ships – and Lenin. This picture shows a tattoo of a multi-domed monastery surrounded by a wall, which can be worn by a medvezhatnik (‘bear hunter’ in Russian, jargon for a safecracker). The number of domes can denote the number of convictions and the lengths of custodial sentences. The eyes on the top of the chest mean 'I can see everything' and 'I am watching over you'. (Photo: Arkady Bronnikov/FUEL Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive)

  • Star inmate

    The book, from the publishers of the Russian Criminal Tattoo encyclopedia series, is the first publication of photos taken by Bronnikov at correctional institutions in the Ural and Siberia. Bronnikov interviewed prisoners to gain an insight into the secret visual language of convicts. Matching eight-pointed stars tattooed on an inmate’s chest, just below the collarbones, indicate to other prisoners that the branded inmate is a professional criminal. “When a convict has the same symbol tattooed on his kneecaps,” says Bronnikov, “it means that he has an anarchical world view: ‘I do not bow to other powers. No one can make me fall to my knees.’” (Photo: Arkady Bronnikov/FUEL Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive)

  • Knuckling down

    “According to an unwritten law among criminals, a convict without tattoos is looked down on,” says Bronnikov. “Such individuals appear as white sheep in a black herd. Tattoos are a passport and biography, they reflect the convict’s interests, his outlook on life, his world view. There are certain ‘distinguished’ tattoos that a convict earns the right to wear – visible signs of his authority and prestige.” Bracelets tattooed on the wrists indicate more than five years served in prison. Crosses over the knuckles represent trips to the 'zone' (either a prison or a camp). Forefinger: a symbol in memory of parents who have died during his prison sentence. Middle finger: 'I stayed in 'till the bell' - a prisoner who served his sentence in full with no parole. Third finger: an inverted spade is the sign of a conviction for hooliganism. (Photo: Arkady Bronnikov/FUEL Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive)

  • Thieves’ honour

    As soon as an inmate enters a prison or a camp, according to Bronnikov, “They realise that the thieves are in charge. They copy both their tattoos and mannerisms in an attempt to elevate their status.” Tattoos of saints and angels are mainly applied to the back and chest, and signify a devotion to the thieves’ traditions. “They are proof that the body of their wearer is not mired in 'betrayal', that he is 'clean' before his fellow convicts.” The 'thieves' cross on the chest of this man is small, “suggesting this man has adopted a thieves’ mentality, but he is not a 'vor v zakone' or 'thief-in-law', he holds no real power among this caste”. (Photo: Arkady Bronnikov/FUEL Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive)

  • The cat’s whiskers

    According to Bronnikov, cat heads tattooed on both sides of the chest show that the wearer is cunning and will cheat and gain the victim’s trust easily, while the abbreviation ‘KOT’ (‘cat’ in Russian) stands for ‘native prison resident’. On the leg, a sailboat with a white body, shaded sails and flags on the masts is a sign for a 'gulnogo' - a person who fled from custody to engage in criminal activity, and a ‘nomadic traveller’ (a migrant offender who travels to different cities to commit theft). “The Madonna and child is one of the most popular tattoos worn by criminals, and there can be a number of meanings,” says Bronnikov. “It can symbolise loyalty to a criminal clan; it can mean that the wearer believes the Mother of God will ward off evil; as well as meaning that the wearer has been in the jail system and behind bars from an early age.” (Photo: Arkady Bronnikov/FUEL Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive)

  • Bullet-proof leaders

    “Lenin is held by many criminals to be the chief pakhan (boss) of the Communist Party,” says Bronnikov. “Often tattoos with portraits of Lenin and Stalin are intended to show patriotic feelings. However, some prisoners had portraits of Lenin and Stalin tattooed on their chest for ‘protection’, as it was commonly believed that the guards were forbidden to shoot at an image of their great leaders.” (Photo: Arkady Bronnikov/FUEL Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive)

  • Four-letter word

    On this man’s left leg, the tattoo reads: “Few roads have been walked”. Bronnikov explains the tattoo on his right leg, which refers to prison camps on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea. “‘SLON’ is interpreted by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as ‘Solovetsky Camps of Special Assignment’. That’s the only meaning Solzhenitsyn suggests, however criminals have up to ten possible interpretations including: ‘Very Sick of Solovetsky Camps’, ‘Stalin Camps of Special Assignment’, ‘Very Sick of Stalin Camps’, ‘Only Misfortunes From an Early Age’. The classic variant was given by Solzhenitsyn, and then the others appeared, mostly as swear word combinations interpreted by criminals.” (Photo: Arkady Bronnikov/FUEL Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive)

  • Eye-opener

    “I first started studying tattoos in the mid-1960s as a means of identifying the corpses of criminals,” says Bronnikov. He describes a case in which a male body was found between log piles near the village of Nizhnyaya Kurya. Clothed only in underwear and too decomposed for fingerprints to be taken, the man was identified by his tattoos. In another case, detectives caught a thief after his victim noticed the name ‘Robert’ tattooed on his right hand. Across the eyelids of this man, tattoos read: ‘Don’t wake’. Tattoos on the eyelids are made by inserting a metal spoon under the lid so that the ‘needle’ doesn’t penetrate the eye. (Photo: Arkady Bronnikov/FUEL Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive)