16 May 2015

Decoding Russian mafia tattoos

The dollar bills, skyscrapers and machine gun with the initials ‘US’ stamped on it convey this inmate’s love for the American mafia-like lifestyle. The eyes mean ‘I’m watching over you’ (the other inmates).

This is a variation on the myth of Prometheus, who is chained to a rock in eternal punishment after tricking Zeus. The sailing ship means the bearer does not engage in normal work; he is a travelling thief who is prone to escape.

Monasteries, churches, cathedrals, the Virgin Mary, saints and angels on the chest or back display a devotion to thievery. Skulls indicate a conviction for murder. Coffins also represent murder; they are burying the victim.

Eight-pointed stars on the clavicles denote a high-ranking thief. A bow tie on the neck was often forcibly applied to pickpockets who had broken the thieves’ code and sided with the authorities. The dollar sign on the bow tie shows that this man is either a safe-cracker or money launderer.

A snake around the neck is a sign of drug addiction. These trousers are the uniform of the strictest type of prison regime in the Soviet Union. Criminals sent here are known as ‘osobo opasnim retsidivistom’ (especially dangerous recidivists), who have carried out grave offences such as murder or paedophilia. They are not subject to parole.

Epaulettes on the shoulders show a negative attitude to the system, and are worn by high-ranking criminals who often have a corresponding nickname such as ‘major’ or ‘colonel’. Epaulettes with three stars or skulls mean: ‘I am not a slave of the camps, no one can force me to work’; ‘The strong win – the weak die’ and ‘Horses die from work.’

On this Muslim prisoner’s stomach is a religious building with a crescent moon. The lighthouse on his right arm shows a desire for freedom – and each wrist manacle means he’s served a sentence of more than five years. The words on his arm read ‘Remember me, don’t forget me’ and ‘I waited 15 years for you’.

Eyes on the stomach denote homosexuality (the penis makes the ‘nose’ of the face). Stars on the shoulders show that an inmate is a criminal ‘authority’. The medals are awards that existed before the revolution and as such are signs of defiance towards the Soviet regime.

The rose on this man’s chest means he turned 18 in prison. The ‘SOS’ on his right forearm either stands for ‘Spasite Ot Syda’ (Save me from judgment); ‘Spasayus Ot Sifilisa’ (Saved from syphilis); or ‘Suki Otnyali Svobodu’ (Bitches robbed my freedom).

The text on this man’s right arm reads ‘Save love, keep freedom’, his left arm reads ‘Sinner’, his chest reads ‘To each his own’ and the words underneath the skulls reads ‘God against everyone, everyone against God’. A gun-toting cowboy shows a thief that is prepared to take risks and exploit any opportunity.

The skull and crossbones show that a prisoner is serving a life sentence. The girl ‘catching’ her dress with a fishing line is commonly worn by rapists. The words above his waist reads ‘I fuck poverty and misfortune’. On his stomach is a version of Giorgione’s Judith (1504), a symbol of a seductive woman who betrays a noble man.

Nazi symbols can mean that an inmate has fascist sympathies, but more usually they are inked as a protest towards the prison or camp administration. During the Soviet period, the authorities removed these tattoos by force. A tattoo of a mermaid often indicates a sentence for child molestation.

The words on his arm reads ‘Thank you dear motherland for my ruined youth’. A dagger through the neck means that a criminal has committed murder in prison and is available to hire for further killing. The drops of blood can signify the number of murders committed.

The devils on the shoulders of this inmate show a hatred of authority. This type of tattoo is known as an oskal (grin), a baring of teeth towards the system. They are sometimes accompanied by anti-Soviet texts.

The Madonna and Child is a thieves’ talisman, acting as a guardian from misfortune and misery. It also means that the bearer has been a thief from an early age: ‘A child of prison’.

The double-headed eagle is a Russian state symbol that dates back to the 15th century. After the fall of Communism, it replaced the hammer and sickle as the Russian Federation’s coat of arms. This Soviet-era photo is a bold symbol of rage against the USSR; the Statue of Liberty implies a longing for freedom. All photographs: Arkady Bronnikov/FUEL

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