Arkady Bronnikov might be regarded as Russia’s leading expert on tattoo iconography. He did this from the mid-1960s to mid-1980s. He worked in criminalistics at the USSR ministry of internal affairs for thirty years and archived tattoos during that time. Some will and probably should view this collection from a strict criminality viewpoint; but the symbolism and metaphors should be considered also.Their individual tattoos relate to specific crimes. For example, a naked woman being burnt on a cross symbolizes a conviction for the murder of a woman. The number of logs on the fire underneath the victim denotes the number of years of the sentence. And so on . . . .
A rose on the chest means he turned 18 while in prison.
The eight-pointed stars on the clavicles denote a high-ranking thief. the dollar sign on the bow tie shows the bearer is either a safecracker, money launderer or has been convicted for the theft of state property.
The tattoos on this inmate mimic those of higher-ranking criminals and indicate he has adopted a thieves’ mentality. But he does not wear the ‘thieves’ stars’ so holds no real power among this caste.
A snake around the neck is a sign of drug addiction. The stars on the clavicles and epaulettes on the shoulders show that this inmate is an authority.
The court only deprived me of freedom, but nobody deprived me of human feelings. and the years go by, and my temples have gone grey, and my youth has been damaged.’ the bell tolls [meaning he is serving his time ‘to the bell’ – the full sentence with no remission].
Text across the chest reads ‘As long as I breathe, I hope’. The turbaned man clutching a knife in his mouth indicates an inclination to brutality, sadism, and a negative attitude toward activists – prisoners who openly collaborate with prison authorities (also often a pirate). The Latin text on the shoulder reads ‘Remember your mortality’.
Eyes on the stomach denote homosexuality. The medals are awards that existed before the revolution. He defied the Soviet regime.
From 1970. In the Russian prisons and colonies, prisoners suffering from venereal diseases (such as syphilis) are known as buketniki (bouquet holders). They are also nicknamed after army ranks, depending on how advanced their condition is, for example, ‘Kolka whored around without taking any precautions; yesterday the medic told me that he was already a “lieutenant”.’ (An inmate suffering from second-stage syphilis is known as a ‘colonel’, third-stage a ‘general’).
A spider in the web means he has been punished for repeatedly violating the code of the colony. Punishment is carried out by getting him in a cell where he can be beaten and raped.
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.
This convict’s tattoos were applied in the camps of the Urals where the tattoo artists produce work of exceptional quality. Because they were so held in such high regard, criminals often attempted to be transferred there in order to be tattooed. The dollar bill on the shoulder signifies the bearer’s commitment to a life of crime.
The skull and crossbones show that the prisoner is serving a life term. the single eight-pointed star denotes that he is a ‘semi-authority’ among thieves. the girl ‘catching’ her dress with a fishing line on his left forearm is a tattoo worn by hooligans and rapists.
The lighthouse on his right arm shows a desire for freedom. each wrist manacle means he’s served a sentence of more than five yrs.
This prisoner’s tattoos display his anger and bitterness towards Communist power; the tattoos on the face signify that he never expects to go free.Text around the neck ‘To each his own’; above each head of the double-headed snake ‘Wife’ and ‘Mother-in-law’; on the chest ‘It is not for you whores, to dig in my soul’.
The devils on the shoulders of this inmate show a hatred of authority. sometimes accompanied by anti-Soviet texts.
The text on his stomach reads “man is wolf to man”. The text across the arms reads “live in sin, die laughing”.
An ‘otritsala’ ring, denoting someone who is hostile to law-enforcement and the regime. they cannot be re-educated. middle finger ‘freedom for the youth’ or ‘I’ve done time and I will steal again’. third finger ‘ruined youth’, the bearer was convicted as a juvenile. the five dots on the wrist are a common sign of someone familiar with the prison regime. they signify ‘four watchtowers and me’ or ‘I’ve been through the zone’, an inmate who has served a sentence in a correctional labor or penal colony.
The epaulette and the spider on the shoulders denote a high-ranking criminal. The text across the chest reads: ‘O Lord, forgive me for the tears of my mother’. On the right side of the bearers chest is tattooed 100-ruble note, usually signifying involvement in counterfeiting and commitment to criminal life.