During the last century in the USSR, there was a culture of tattoos used to indicate the criminal CV of a person, and his rank in the criminal communities. Particularly for those that were imprisoned in the Russian Gulag system of the Soviet era, the tattoos served as a means to differentiate between inmates. The main difference who was an authority or who a thief in law, and who was a political prisoner.
In the 1930s, this practice grew, peaking in the 1950s and declining in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s.
- Origins of Russian criminal tattoos.
The branding of criminals has been practiced in Russia a long time before the tattooing practice was customary, and was banned in 1863. In the 19th century, a ‘pricked’ cross on the left hand was usually utilized to mark some deserters from the army, and up until 1846, the criminals that were sentenced to hard labor have been branded ‘VOR’ which means thief, the letters being on their foreheads or cheeks. Brands have also been applied to the shoulder blade and the right forearm, in three categories: ‘SK’ for Ssylno-Katorzhny meaning hard labor convict, then ‘SP’ for Ssylno-Poselenets meaning hard labor deportee and ‘B’ for a Begly meaning escapee. In 1846, VOR was replaced by KAT, which are the first three words of the word katorzhnik, meaning hard labor convict.
In the 1930s, the Russian criminal castes started to emerge, such as the Masti – suits, as well as the Vory v Zakone or Blatnye – authoritative thieves, and with that, a tattoo culture for defining rank and reputation also appeared. Up until the Second World War, any tattoo denoted a professional criminal, the only exception being tattoos on sailors.
Being under the Gulag system, some laws which were implemented in the middle 1940s permitted short prison sentences to be given to those that were convicted of petty theft, labor discipline infractions, or even hooliganism. This led to increasing the prison population at the time after the Second World War.
By 1941, the Gulag workforce increased by almost 300,000 prisoners. Then, tattoos served to differentiate between an authority or thief in law and the many hundreds of thousands of political prisoners that were imprisoned at that time and shortly after the Second World War for crimes that were not considered those of a VOR.
The collection of tattoos of a thief represents his ‘suit’ or Mast, which indicated his status in the community of thieves, as well as his control over some other thieves within the law of thieves. In the Russian criminal jargon, a full set of tattoos is known as frak s ordenami, meaning a tailcoat with decorations. Such tattoos show a service record of achievements, as well as failures, prison sentences, and the type of work a criminal did. They may also represent the family of the thief, naming others within hearts or with some traditional tomcat image.
Misappropriation of the tattoos of a ‘legitimate thief’ could be punished by death, or the prisoner is going to be forced to remove them themselves with a knife, sandpaper, or a shard of glass or lump of brick.
- The reforms of Khrushchev and the decline of tattooing.
In the 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev has declared policy for the eradication of criminality from Soviet society. Together with the propaganda of denouncing the traditional thief growing in popularity in the culture of Russia, some punishments in the prisons also intensified for anyone that identified as a legitimate thief, which included beatings and torture. As a result of this, the laws for thieves were intensified, and the punishment for prisoners wearing unearned tattoos also increased from removal to rape and murder.
By the 1970s, the intensifying of the laws of thieves resulted in reprisals against the legitimate thieves. The tattoo fashion started spreading through juvenile prisons, in that way increasing the numbers of inmates with ‘illegitimate’ tattoos. This meant that with a reduction in violence, the authorities also stopped punishing unearned tattoos.
In 1985, the increase in tattoo parlors made tattooing fashionable, and further diluted the status of tattoos as a solely criminal attribute.
- The most common designs of tattoos.
Over the years, common designs and themes grew, usually having various meanings, depending on the location of the tattoo. The imagery usually does not mean what it depicts – for instance, tattoos that display Nazi imagery symbolize a rejection of authority rather than an adherence to Nazism. Also, some combinations of imagery, like a rose, barbed wire, and a dagger form, combined meanings.
The collection of tattoos of a thief indicates his status in the Russian community of thieves, as well as his control over the laws of thieves. Some of the most common designs used are stars, cat, Lenin or Stalin, Orthodox Church, Suns, Skull, Dragons, Medals, Spiders, and a lot more.
There were also tattoos which were forcibly applied, to signify demotion, depicting sexual act, and applied to those that are convicted of sexual crimes, those who have not paid a debt, stool pigeons and so on.