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Viggo Mortensen's Russian Mafia Tattoos

Updated on July 10, 2009

Anyone with a passing interest in tattoos should watch Eastern Promises. Apart from being a great movie, it has as one of its central themes, russian mafia tattoos. The film was produced in 2007 and was nominated for an Oscar for Viggo's performance in the film. The movie won several awards, including a BAFTA for the Best British Film and a Saturn Award for best international film. Obviously, it was highly regarded in the industry, and rightly so - the film is gritty and hard hitting, with a great twist halfway through. For those of you that haven't seen it yet, the plot revolves around the death of a Russian teenager who dies during childbirth, leaving her baby without a mother. As the midwife who helps deliver the baby tries to find a next of kin, she finds herself in the middle of a Russian Mafia prostitution ring. Viggo Mortensen is Nikolai, the driver to a London based Russian Mob boss, seemingly without morals and prepared to do anything it takes to become a made man in the Russian Mafia.

As the story unfolds, we are introduced more and more to the tattoos that are used by the Vory v Zakone (the Russian mafia), the stars on the shoulders indicating a made man

 As the story unfolds, we are introduced more and more to the tattoos that are used by the Vory v Zakone (the Russian mafia). We learn that the tattoos of the Vory have a deep meaning to the "thieves in law". To the casual observer they are nothing more than stars or roses or religious icons, but to those who know how to read them, the tattoos offer the wearer's entire life history; what crimes they have committed, where they have been jailed, how many years they spent in jail and what rank they are in the organisation are all revealed by the tattoos.

One of the most unforgettablee scenes in Eastern Promises is when Nikolai is being interviewed by the heads of the Vory to become a made man. He sits striped for his interview and as the gangsters retell his life of crime we see the extent of the tattoos on Nikolai - a large cross on his chest, a grim reaper and on his back a cathedral with 3 spires and 6 crosses indicating the "Crosses" prison in St Petersberg where Nikolai did time.

All counted, for the movie, Mortensen wore 43 tattoos. Originally, the screenplay did not emphasise the tattoos too much, but while Viggo Mortensen was researching his role as Nikolai, he came across a book called "Russian criminal tattoo encyclopedia" which he sent to Cronenberg (the director of Eastern Promises) and the central metaphor of the tattoos in the movie grew from there. In fact, Mortensen's fake tattoos for the movie looked so realistic that while he was out dining in a Russian restaurant one evening some of the other diners at the next table really thought he was in the Russian mafia.

The technology behind the fake tattoos for Mortensen's Russian Criminal Tattoos is pretty amazing, and has been developed over a long period of time. Back in 1981, a film called Tattoo was released which needed extensive and realistic tattoos. A famous chemist called Dr Samuel Zuckerman was approached to develop a process to make temporary tattoos for the film. Zuckerman is none other than the man who put the stripe into Aquafresh toothpaste. Back in the 80s, tattoos for films were made with a rubber stamp to form the outline, with colour added by hand. The tricky part of temporary tattoos is making the colour look slightly faded like the look of real ink under the skin. Eventually, Zuckerman came up with a cosmetic ink that could be used to print full colour transfers onto special paper and a company called Temptu was creatde to market these temporary tattoos. Temptu's transfers have been used in many films now; notably Cape Fear with Robert De Niro and of course Eastern Promises!


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      TheSablirab 8 years ago

      Thanks for the info! LOVED seeing Eastern Promises in the theatre. I still remember that afternoon! It was a Friday actaully, opening day, I think. Loved the film. Actually rented it not too long ago; Viggo Mortenson does a FANTASTIC job.

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      indoorouthouse 8 years ago

      Cool - loved the movie - very brutal......that fight scene was awesome!