All sins leave a mark with Russian criminal tattoos

How much can you know about a person solely by seeing their tattoos? Inkluded contributor Sam Berry was dying to explore the symbology and culture of Russian criminal tattoos.

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Can you tell what someone does for a living just by looking at the designs on their skin? Who they socialise with? Where they have travelled? Probably not. If you’re very lucky they may have something that stands out which gives you a teasing hint at the answer to maybe one of those questions, but you’d probably be making an educated guess at best.

Personally, I’d say this was a good thing. It’s one of the things that make tattoos and their designs so interesting, so intriguing and so unique to the wearer. We see a tattoo and it piques our interest, but the only real way to find out the true meaning or message behind it is to ask or know the wearer. They are an extension of our individuality and can often be very personal ways of expressing ourselves and, to a certain extent, enable us to stand out from the crowd.

The one place you could “read” someone else’s tattoos, without a word being said, would be in the criminal underworld of Russia, the Vory V Zakone; The Thieves Guild.

What has more commonly become known as The Russian Mafia started life as the Vory V Zakone, which closely translates as “thief who follows the law”, figuratively referring to a criminal who obeys the thieves code. These are men who, in the mid 40s through to the mid 80s, served sentences in the Gulags of the old Soviet Union and so formed a ‘Guild of Thieves’, vowing to hinder the authorities and the Russian government as much as possible, whilst following the strict code of conduct they set for themselves.

Within “the zone” (how the Vory refer to prison), these criminals have developed a very intricate and hauntingly beautiful way of chronicling their deeds that make it relatively quick and easy to judge a man’s character the instant you lay eyes on him… through their tattoos.

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As tattooing is banned in prison, they have to make do with the tools available to them to carry out this practice. The dye is made from a mixture of scorched rubber and urine and the tattoo is applied using a length of sharpened wire and an electric shaver. Cases of gangrene and tetanus, as you might expect, are incredibly high.

Each tattoo design and placement instantly tells an onlooker a small piece of information about the wearer. As an example a common tattoo is that of a cat, which is the mark of a professional thief; one cat and the wearer works alone, two cats and he works as part of a larger team. If a man has a tattoo of a naked woman burning on a cross, it symbolises he was convicted for the murder of a woman, the number of logs on the fire denotes the length in years of his sentence.

As one might expect, the further up the Vory hierarchy you go, the more tattoos you carry. It is estimated that in the maximum security prisons, upwards of 95% of prisoners have tattoos that follow the Vory code.

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Religious symbols are incredibly common, such as images of the Madonna and Child, crosses and churches. In the context of the Soviet prison system, these tattoos have very little to do with religious beliefs – their real meanings are rooted in prison and criminal traditions. Probably the most recognisable of these are the large church back pieces which are interpreted by counting the number of domes atop the spires; each dome representing an individual conviction, the design on the spire telling the reader in which prison the conviction was spent. If the criminal served his entire sentence then the dome will be topped by a cross.

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For the times when the majority of their tattoos are covered by clothes, the Vory also have a similar system for hand tattoos. They take the form of small marks and rings which quickly broadcast the desired information. A circled “A” in the form of a ring shows that the wearer is an anarchist for example and the number of small crosses on each hand indicates the number of convictions the wearer has.

The tattoos that these men carry become the most respected and feared thing in prison society; far more than being simply personal, they carry a weight of meaning and are an indelible law in a society beyond conventional law.

This short piece barely scratches the surface of the Vory and their tattoos. If you wish to find out more I highly recommend reading Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files, one of the largest collections of prison tattoo photographs that’s been published to date.

Words: Sam Berry
Photographs by Arkady Bronnikov, as featured in Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files, published by Fuel Design

1) A high ranking Captain of the Vory, as marked out by his lapels and the eight-pointed Thieves Stars on his chest. These stars will usually be mirrored by a pair on his knees, making the statement that he will never kneel before another man. The skull within the lapel shows that he is serving a life sentence for a high profile murder.

2) The dagger through this man’s neck is advertising he has killed another prisoner and is available to hire for further killings. The number of drops of blood falling from the dagger usually matches the number of prisoners he has murdered. The thorny rose on his chest shows he turned 18 within a prison.

3) An example of one church back piece. This man has served four separate sentences in different prisons. All convictions were served in full as all the domes are topped by crosses. The banded tattoo around his left wrist also tells us that he has served at least one sentence of five years or more.

4) This Vory wears a pair of cats, which when coupled with the ship on his thigh, mark him out as a travelling thief who works as part of a larger team or gang.

5) This prisoner wears the lapels and Thieves Stars of a high ranking Vory Captain. The snake around his neck indicates a drug addiction and his banded wrists show his has served two separate sentences of five or more years each.