The nation of Russia has undergone dramatic transformations in the past decade, and those metamorphoses have been starkly reflected in its infamous prisons. Home to the second highest prison population per capita in the world (after only USA, who also claims the dubious title of most overall prisoners), the Russian penal system is a sprawling, underfunded and corrupt para-society rich in its own laws and rituals, none perhaps more arcane and elaborate than their tattoo culture…
If you haven’t yet familiarized yourself with the inner-most workings of the Russian criminal underground, then take a look at Danzig Baldayev’s encyclopedia that chronicles his experience with Russian prison tattoos. Baldayev spent over 30 years documenting and translating some 3,600 tattoos while working as a prison guard in the notorious St. Petersburg Kresty prison. Selling for $160, this 400-page, 189-illustration, leather-bound tome, aptly titled Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia, will go great next to your collection of Italian, Colombian and Mexican mafia books. It’s essentially a beefed-up compilation of his three previously published encyclopedias.
Rougher and less defined than the clean lines and vibrant colors found in western commercial tattooing, Russian prison tattoos vary greatly even from their American criminal counterparts. That’s because in prison ink is in short supply, so inmates melt tires or the soles of their shoes to make due. Still practiced today, and even in some U.S. prisons, the melted rubber is mixed with urine to produce the end result.
Hit the Jump to continue reading Piter De Vries’ feature on Russian Prison Tattoos, featuring videos, a tattoo glossary, and an interview/Q&A with director Alix Lambert, who filmed the definitive documentary on Russian Prison Tattoos titled The Mark of Cain…
Known as the Thieves World, this was a well-established network of prisoners and they didn’t take kindly to traitors.
The genesis of much of the tradition dates back over 70 years, when Russia’s involvement in WWII required its leader, Joseph Stalin, to use every resource at his disposal to battle the Axis powers. Sometime around 1942, Stalin promised freedom to prison inmates across the Soviet empire in return for military service. When the newly commissioned soldiers fulfilled their obligation, they were sent back to the prison system to face those they had betrayed.
Known as the Thieves World, this was a well-established network of prisoners and they didn’t take kindly to traitors. These returning traitors were called Suki, the Russian word for Bitch.
Here’s a video from Fuel Publishing that illustrates the first three volumes in the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia series:
The bitches (although I would have hesitated to address them as such) banded together, but also formed tight bonds with the prison staff, all of whom were veterans of the Soviet military themselves. This is probably how Baldayev was able to gain access to the far reaches of this criminal undercurrent and to the secret meanings of their elaborate tattoos. One of the rules of the Thieves World code of conduct is that you do not cooperate with the government. Baldayev was obviously an extension of that government.
Had Stalin not created this rift in the Russian criminal underground, we wouldn’t know the meanings of these ink-soaked images.
Here are just a few:
Barbed wire: Each spike represents one year of imprisonment.
Bells: meaning the person has committed a serious crime and will spend the rest of their life in jail, “from bell call to bell call.”
Bird: If flying over the horizon can represent a longing for freedom.
Butterflies: This person can be trusted in an escape.
Candle sticks: Beware, this person will extinguish your flame.
Cat: This is the sign of the thief and symbolizes cunning. This tattoo is seen as a pair on the upper chest, just under the shoulders.
Cathedral: The number of steeples might mean how many times the person has been to prison. “The church is the house of God” (prison is the home of the thief) will sometimes be written beneath the church.
Cobwebs: Could be found on the shoulders, signifying drug addiction.
Dagger: This person is a killer.
Genie: Seen coming out of a lamp, this indicates that the inmates is serving time for drug-related crimes or is a drug addict themselves.
Knight: In full armor, this can represent an inmate accused of hooliganism, a gangster.
Military shoulder piece: Given for various criminal accomplishments. What do you think a shoulder piece adorned with a skull is given for?
Mother Mary & baby Jesus: This person was born a criminal.
Pirate Tattoo: Sometimes accompanied by “167,” the article for armed robbery in the Russian Penal Code.
Prison bars: An inmate with a life sentence, prison is his home.
Rose: This person went to prison as an adolescent.
Skulls: Given to one who has committed murder.
Snake: A snake coiled around the neck & chest represents the Communist party’s grip on that individual. It can also generally mean power.
Spider: Can indicate a drug addiction, or that the person is a thief.
Stalin & Lenin: Images of the leaders’ faces were tattooed over a person’s heart, so that a firing squad would not shoot them there.
Sailing Ship: The person lives a roaming life and can also be trusted in an escape.
Stars: Star tattoos on the knees mean that the person won’t be brought to their knees, usually given as a promotion to Captain. Also seen on the upper chest in a pair near the shoulders.
Tiger: Someone who can be called on to enforce a captain’s bidding.
Today, inmates are separated into two suits — The Blacks, who uphold the Thieves’ Code, and The Reds, who aid the prison administration. The Blacks who abide by the code are also referred to as Thieves-in-the-Law.
Alix Lambert was given the opportunity to visit Russian prisons for her film, “The Mark of Cain,” and again for her work on a series for The History Channel. She’s also written a book about Russian prison tattoos aptly titled “Russian Prison Tattoos.” Her works were a keystone in the research for the film “Eastern Promises.” Staying active in the tattoo community, Lambert screened her film at a Connecticut art theater the night of this interview (Thursday) and is sitting on a panel about tattooing in May. Lambert is also something of a tattoo artist herself.
LIAS Q&A Alix Lambert
How did you get into Russian tattoos?
I was in Russia in the early nineties to do an exhibition of photography, and a friend of mine actually gave me an article about the tattoos in prisons. I was interested in the sort of non-verbal communication. I ended up going back in ’99 to shoot the film.
Are you doing anything these days with regards to tattoos, tattooing or Russian Tattoos?
I’m going to be speaking on a panel about tattooing in May and I’m going to show some of those photographs (from Russia), so I continue to work with other people within the tattoo community. The curator, Kathleen Cullen has put together a panel, I think it’ll be in the Gay and Lesbian Center, I’m not sure yet…with myself and Thomas Hooper, a great British tattoo artist.
Which tattoos are done forcibly in Russian prisons and which do the prisoners choose to get on their own?
The only forcible tattoos are if you’re what they call a Downcast, which is lowest in the caste system. A way you might end up being a Downcast is if you were a sex offender or child molester. That’s pretty much universal, not just in Russia, but in any prison. You might get the word slave tattooed on your face. You might become a Downcast if you lost a bet, if you lost at cards or something. Once you’re a Downcast you can never rise up, you can’t go up to the higher caste levels. You’re used for sex by the other prisoners and you’re not allowed to eat with them, you sleep between them. Otherwise, tattoos correspond to your rank or status in the prison.
The film mentions that some juveniles are automatically labeled as Downcasts.
Anyone who comes into the prison who is believed to be homosexual is automatically downcast. Also If you were very weak and unable to stick up for yourself. A lot of the lifers, their first offense, they were 13 or 14 years old and they stole a loaf of bread or something. Then you’re in pre-trial and you might wait (in an over-crowded detention center) four years for a trial, so you haven’t even been convicted of a crime yet, but you spent four years in a really hard prison system. So, it’s kind of a breeding ground for criminals. You almost have to become a criminal. You have a lot of people who plead guilty just to get out of there. I’m actually screening (“The Mark of Cain”) tonight (Thursday) at a place called Real Artways in Connecticut.
Wow, so this film is thriving after being put out like…10 years ago, right?
I think that “Eastern Promises”…it got its second wind, I think, because of interest in that film. David Cronenberg was very kind about my film helping in that. I went back almost a year ago today with The History Channel for a series they wanted to do. You see the older people with those tattoos, but the younger ones just aren’t getting them.
And why is that?
Because a lot has changed, you can buy your status with money now. There’re kids with Adidas track suits and because a lot of the prisoners are not expecting to spend their entire life in prison. The whole idea was the Code of the Thieves and Thief-in-Law and the whole hierarchy is like…”you’re probably going to spend the rest of your life in prison, you should establish yourself there.” If you think you’re going to get out and go to university, you don’t want to be marked as a criminal for the rest of your life. That divide between older and younger criminals is really interesting to me because you talk to the older criminals and they talk like your parents talk about your music choices like, “There’s no good thieves or murderers anymore.”
It’s funny and I almost want to use the word romantic—it’s like a romantic age is dying.
Ya, it’s all about honor and the code and doing the right…you know maybe not the right thing by your and my standards, but the ethical code they lived by, these younger drug dealers in prison don’t respect it. You heard the word respect over and over again in the film.
Lambert’s recent return to Russia was bitter-sweet. She was hired by North South Productions to direct an episode of “Marked” for the History Channel. She didn’t feel like the production company portrayed her subjects in the right light. For starters, the episode was called “Pure Evil,” which didn’t suit at least one of the convicts. He had been released from prison 10 years prior to the filming of “Pure Evil” and was leading a perfectly normal life with his family. Another victim of sensationalism was a female inmate who agreed to do an anonymous interview. She was soon to be released and wanted to have a fair chance at rehabilitation. The entire interview was shot in silhouette to protect her identity. When the episode aired, the only shots that were used of the woman were ones where she occasionally leaned into the light, revealing her face. Lambert was outraged, she had given this woman her word.
Russian Criminals and Their Tattoos
Fashioning a tattoo gun from a wind-up shaver, a pen and a sharpened guitar string, this tattoo artist gets another inmate to post as lookout while he lays his ink.
So-called Downcasts are forced to play female roles in Russian prison. They are often forced to sleep on the floor, under a cot and are sometimes forcibly tattooed on the face to display their role in the population. They are the lowest caste in Russian Prison. Juveniles transferred into this system who are can’t defend themselves often automatically deemed Downcasts.
Inmates known as Goats are part of The Red prisoner trustee population who aid the prison administration. A Goat is disliked by inmates in both The Red and The Black populations, because he has snitched on another inmate or spied for the guards.
Selekamsk prison, or “The White Swan,” is considered one of the toughest prisons in Russia. Its main objective is to break criminal leaders. Some of the cells have no windows and heaters are mockingly painted on the walls as a sort of psychological torture.
Another method of torture, called the Cell Press, involves the administration putting a victim in a cell with some few dozen hand-selected prisoners. The intended target of this tactic is usually too scared to sleep for fear of beatings and rape, which happen regardless. Cell Presses will last for days, even weeks.
There can be up to 50 inmates packed into a 20-man cell at once. The prisons are so overcrowded that prisoners have come up with their own rules dictating who sleeps, who stands and who sits at any given time during the day.
Because of this overcrowding, Tuberculosis and other diseases run rampant. Some 100,000 inmates have Tuberculosis, 20,000 cases of which are incurable. Tattooing also helps the spread of disease.
If it’s assumed that Stalin created a rift between the Russian prison population, so too did the spread of Democracy after the fall of the Communist Soviet Union in 1991. The old ways of the Thieves’ World started giving way to the New Russia. One prisoner said that an eighteen-year-old inmate can buy a crown tattoo, presumably one denoting authority, without earning it. The New Russians in the prison don’t stay true to their word, another inmate said, they don’t uphold the Thieves’ Code and can’t be trusted.
A prisoner used to have to explain his tattoos, answer for them. If the other inmates weren’t happy with the answer, they were beaten and even cut. Sometimes the tattoo would be cut from the inmate’s body. This isn’t the case today. There is a new generation of Russian criminals who don’t hold the same sentimentality as their predecessors.