PRISONERS’ TATTOOS: A WORLD HIDDEN IN JAIL


Stars, skulls, devils and eyes can be considered as “though guys tattoos” unless they are inked over the skin of inmates. More precisely soviet inmates.

The world hidden behind prisoners’ tattoos is really fascinating: black shapes that are full of meanings and that are not randomly shoved over chests, wrists or necks.



From the 1960s to 1980s Arkady Bronnikov, who is considered the leading Russian expert of iconography of tattoos, visited the correctional facilities of Soviet Union and spoke with many inmates who showed him their creepy tattoos. Bronnikov collected all the data he gained into a book entitled “Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files” published by FUEL.


Every drawings had a particular meaning and it also represented the committed crime and the reason why they were in jail. This kind of “tradition” in Russian prisons started in 19th century when authorities tattooed over the criminals’ faces the phrase “KAT”. Once they served their sentence (for those who were able to see the light again), they were free but everyone would have known they were in jail. This tattoo was like a stamp that categorized them as “dangerous men”. The problem was that prisoners were proud of this kind of symbol so they started to elaborate “their own language”.





In prison authorities banned any kind of tattoos as the sanitary conditions were terrible but the inmates continued to mark their skins with different figures. For tattooing themselves they used whatever they found that allowed them to transfer the ink under the skin and for avoid infections they used urine as it has antiseptic properties. Every tattoo established a complex hierarchy to respect and also a sort of language between prisoners. They can communicate without speaking. So “the newcomers” had to learn who commanded and they had to be careful and made no mistakes.




WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MOST FAMOUS PRISONERS’ TATTOOS?


Some of the most famous tattoos carried by inmates are:


  • STARS: Usually the stars were eight points stars. Their meaning changed due to the position over the body. For example a star on a chest means that inmate won’t get on their knees for anyone

  • SKULLS: These were the symbols that identified murders, someone who killed and who carried over his body the “rests of the victim”

  • CROSSES: Usually they were tattooed over the chest and they meant that even if the criminal was punished with jail, he was not afraid to face God

  • SPIDERS: A prisoner who had a spider as tattoo, meant he wanted to keep on his criminal lifestyle

  • BELLS: Usually they were over people who had a long time in prison and who have faced long sentences

  • RELIGIOUS ICONS: The symbols that concern religion were carried by inmates who considered prison as their home. The most popular were Madonna and Christ child

  • EYES: Eyes assumed different meanings according to their position. For instance if eyes were tattooed over the chest it meant that the prisoner was watching you but if they were tattooed over the stomach or the bottom it meant that the inmate was homosexual.





Behind tattoos there is a world to discover that maybe can be unsettling and creepy but that is certainly very wide.













Article by

Sara Orlandini


All photographs

Arkady Bronnikov/FUEL


Images taken from

theguardian.com