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Tattoo ideas: the amazing and complex Russian criminal prison tattoos

Updated on August 9, 2013
High ranking russian criminal.
High ranking russian criminal. | Source

Tattoos are the world's most popular form of body modification. It’s a design made​​ permanent on human skin,which technically is an application, subcutaneous, obtained by introducing pigments through needles.

It’s a procedure that for many centuries has been completely irreversible (although depending on the case,removal techniques currently exist). Many people do tattoos because they are living works of art, which remain as much as life.

There are many archaeological evidence claiming that there were tattoos in Egypt between 4000 and 2000 BC and also by natives of Polynesia, the Philippines, Indonesia and New Zealand(Maori), tattooed in rituals connected with religion.

The term "tattoo", in French "tatouage", and English "tattoo", has its origins in Polynesian languages, with the word "tatau". The father of the word "tattoo" that we know today was Captain James Cook, who wrote in his diary the word "tattow" also known as "tatau" (that was the sound made during the execution of the tattoo, which used bone as fine as needles and a kind of hammer for introducing ink into the skin).

The Catholic Church in the middle ages in Europe banned tattooing (in 787, was banned by the Pope), considered as a demonic practice, characterizing it as a practice of vandalism in the body.

With the travels of the British sailors tattoo and the word Tattoo came into contact with many other civilizations in the world.

In 1891, Samuel O'Reilly developed an electrical device for making tattoos based in an other extremely similar device that had been created and patented byThomas Edison.

During World War II, the tattoo was often used by soldiers and sailors, who recorded the name of the loved one in their bodies. The topics are endless and as varied as the personalities of tattooists and tattooed.

Outside the law

The Government of England adopted tattooing as a form of identification of criminals in 1879; thereafter the tattoo has gained a connotation outside-the-law in the West.

In few places the hierarchy remains as rigid as in prisons.

One of the hallmarks of the legendary hierarchical system is the tattoo and, notably, the symbolism of the designs that encompass the social structure within Russian prisons is considered one of the most complex.

The existence of documentation since the 1920’s show that this practice, which occurred both in prisons and in labor camps, was kept secret until the 1990’s. Most likely the fall of communism in Russia opened a space for that matter come to light, despite marked also the beginning of the disappearance of this "art" secret.

In fact, since the nineteenth century workers from labor camps were marked with the abbreviation "KAT" by katorznik (каторжник), which means "condemned."

The symbolism of tattoos was implemented by the group called Vor v Zakonye (вор в законе), which means something like "thieves in law" or "thieves affinity" formed by criminals who began to join forces to survive the Gulag system. It is they who are at the top of the social hierarchy.

The reason the tattoos are used as identification marks are the biblical story of Cain and Abel. For killing his brother, Cain received a mark of God, a permanent reminder of his crime and at the same time, a sign that no one could touch him.

Basically, all you need to know about the subject is in the drawings he has: for what he was convicted, how many times was he arrested, which kind of criminal he is, among others. There was a time when even those who do not want the tattoos ended up "getting" them by force and, until today, the drawings must be earned.

Danzing Baldaev and some of his 'friends'.
Danzing Baldaev and some of his 'friends'.

The main responsible for the dissemination of the meaning of Russian tattoos is called Danzing Baldaev. Veteran of World War II was appointed in 1948 to work as a warden in Kresty, which is a prison in Leningrad. Since then, he began collecting drawings and information about prisoners' tattoos, which resulted in the three volumes of "Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia".

But are criminal tattoos unique to Russia?


Russian criminal tattoos are unique in that the lexicon is both sophisticated, and meticulously-documented.


Complex meanings

  • When it comes to the thieves, initiation means a tattoo on the chest: a drawing of a woman and sometimes a rose.
  • The worst of all involuntary tattoos - a heart inside a triangle - signaled that the prisoner was a pedophile or rapist of children, having secured a passport to a very busy life in prison.
  • If a woman appears in the stomach region or belly side, reveals a relationship with a prostitute or prostitution crimes. Or naked women with breasts on display are also signs of revolt against the Communist system and refusal to submit.
  • Tattoos are made pornographic in subjects who did not pay their gambling debts.
  • The symbols that arouse the greatest respect are the nautical stars. Tattooed on the knees, indicates that a prisoner does not kneel before anyone, who does not submit to the authorities or to stronger prisoners. The stars on the shoulders reveal those who have confronted and attacked guards.
  • The skulls are tattooed on the arm or hand that kills. The number of skulls in the fingers is the number of murders. Skulls with protruding teeth, especially in the chest, are tattooed by those who rebel against the authorities, as a provocation.
  • The epaulettes (shoulder ornaments used by military) indicate the "patent" of prisoners who belong to the group Vor v Zakonye, ​​according to the "place" in the hierarchy prison.

  • The eyes have several meanings. When made near the shoulder or above the breast, meaning that he keeps his eyes stuck wide open, and that their tattoos were not done by force. At the bottom of the back, indicates that a prisoner is "used" for sexual gratification. At the bottom of the trunk, just above the hips, mean that one prisoner was demoted within the gang to a lower caste.
  • Crucifixes are used by "princes of thieves", the highest status that can reach a prisoner, if the crucifix has a crown it is because the individual is a leader. When the tattoo is of Christ crucified, means that the offender has been oppressed and sentenced by the authorities, as Jesus.
  • Bells show that the convict is not entitled to probation for committing a serious crime. Having them tattooed guarantee the respect of other inmates.
  • Animals with teeth bared represent hostility and resentment towards the authorities.
  • Snakes around the neck and shoulders are made when the person feels that the Soviet system still affects your life negatively.

  • Spiders reveal thieves: if she is climbing the web (usually the shoulder to the neck), means that the individual is a thief still active if it is in the opposite feeling down the web indicates that the subject has stopped stealing . Spiders in webs are also symbols used by drug addicts who steal to maintain their habit.
  • Rats are forcibly tattooed on prisoners who steal articles from other convicts.
  • Each tattooed dome of a cathedral is a sentence fulfilled. If the cathedral is tattooed on the hand or arm near a handcuff on his wrist, means a sentence of more than five years.
  • Criminals who are sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole often display a barbed forehead. Elsewhere in the body, the wire is tattooed with a number of barbs corresponding to the time of sentencing.
  • Swastikas and Nazi symbols were tattooed as a provocation to the Soviet authority.
  • Runes tattoos are those who do not confess. It can also indicate someone who does not submit to the authorities.
  • Butterflies are tattooed by individuals who can be trusted, and who are true "artists" of escape.
  • Knights or a soldier with armor indicates a sadist, convicted of assault and battery. They are also tattooed on "executors" of prisons (which kill other inmates at the request of the gang) or racially motivated.
  • A genie of the lamp is tattooed in those convicted of crimes related to drugs.
  • A dagger is a symbol of the sexual predator. But if she's tattooed in the shoulders, as if to cross the neck, dripping blood from the blade, means that this is a dangerous murderer who should be feared.
  • Tattoos of rings around the toes, with specific forms represent different status. They are symbols of power, crimes and punishments met, among others.
  • Five points in hand means that at some point in life, the person was arrested. There are four points that represent the towers watchmen surrounding a dot representing the prisoner.
  • The Madonna holding baby Jesus in her arms reveals that the person is involved in crime from an early age.
  • Flowers such as tulips or roses crossed by a knife or wrapped in wires are the tattoos of those who were arrested before the age of 18.


No tattooing the body was a sign of weakness, as revealed the desire to return to freedom and a normal life. Even today it is part of the tribal spirit, and initiation rituals of almost criminal sects.

After the death of Baldaev in 2005, its colossal power file would have lost forever. By one of those coincidences of fortune, Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell, the agency FUEL, contacted the widow, visited her in her tiny apartment in St. Petersburg, and bought the file. With it, they made the three volumes of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia.

Concept that goes beyond a mere drawing on the skin, the tattoo can pass a form of language, a medium through which it is possible to express the identity of the individual, and there are tattoo artists who seem to do the impossible in the skin... as you can see in this amazing huw: The world's best tattoo artists - the excellence in the art of drawing


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    • nArchuleta profile image

      Nadia Archuleta 

      5 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Very interesting chronicle of the Russian tattoo system. Some I knew, but some were new to me. Thanks for sharing.


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