But there are plenty of myths attached to prison tattoos, and it’s hard to sift the true from the untrue. There’s a code behind how and why certain iconography is used, and it isn’t always very straightforward. Here are a couple of designs and misconceptions that might initially throw you for a loop.
Swastikas are for Nazis Only
Plenty of Russian prisoners wore swastikas back when the Russian prison tattooing scene was in its heyday, yet the use of the swastika didn’t always imply that the prisoner sympathized with Nazi ideology. In fact, many Russian prisoners fought against the Germans in WWII on behalf of the Red Army (a historical point that caused a schism in Russian prisoner culture that contributed to its downfall), and the swastika was often used to mock guards as fascists and aggravate authorities rather than reflect the ideologies of Nazi Germany. That being said, swastikas in conjunction with a few other symbols of white power (the letters AB, and the numbers 14, 88, and 1488, among other symbols) are nowadays an indicator of neo-Nazi affiliation.
And the Shamrock is for the Irish
If you’re only aware of the Irish largely thanks to pop culture, you’d likely recognize the leprechaun, St. Patrick’s Day, Guinness, U2, and the shamrock as quintessentially Irish. But don’t assume that a shamrock tattoo meant little more than pride in one’s Irish roots. The Aryan Brotherhood, an American neo-Nazi prison gang, coopted the symbol as their own (often depicted with the number 666). The shamrock is among the most important symbols of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Russian Prisoners are Very Religious
Religious iconography is common in prison gangs everywhere, but among the Russians, it likely had very little to do with God and the Church. During the heyday of Russian prison tattoos, the common criminal’s greatest enemy was the state. And the state, at the time, meant the USSR, which did everything short of outlawing religion. While some criminals were likely religious, the heavy use of religious icons was yet another way to ‘stick it to the man’.
Prison Tattoos = Prison Sentences
Prison tattoos feature some astoundingly popular designs, many of which have made it into the mainstream, in no small part thanks to the growing popularity of Chicano-style ‘black and grey’ tattoo art outside of prison walls. Some common ‘prison motifs’ that you’ll also see among non-criminal populations include barbed wire, thorny roses, swallows, teardrops, daggers, guns, and religious imagery.
Prison Tattoos are a Thing of the Past
While Russian tattoos have declined as Russian prison populations went down and the ‘traditional thieves’ (vory) dissipated in both numbers and popularity, many prison tattoos are still very much a living tradition, particularly in the US where prison gangs rely on a complex system of icons and symbols to identify one another and draw clear lines between different groups.
All Prison Tattoos are Voluntary
Some prison tattoos are earned and necessary for entrance into a particular gang, and others are used specifically among criminals to brand other criminals. Examples that come to mind include rapists and child molesters, which were marked with specific symbols in Russian prisons (women with skirts, mermaids, cupids) to single them out as targets for frequent harassment and assault by other prisoners. Such tattoos weren’t sought after and were forced upon prisoners by their fellow inmates.
Other tattoos were used to brand prisoners who had a falling out with a gang or group, failed to pay a debt, or broke a code.
Prison Tattoos Always Look Terrible
Prison tattoos are typically born from places that are extremely unhygienic, with rudimentary tools, incredibly unhealthy ink, and ‘artists’ with little to no training. However, that doesn’t mean all prison tattoos are horrendously bad. In fact, many are astonishingly complex and beautiful given the conditions under which they were made, and given the materials used.
Some prisoners rely on stick-and-poke methods to create their artworks, which can take quite some time, while others use the motors within electric toothbrushes or electric razors, and the spring of a pen, to create a makeshift tattoo machine. In most cases, ink is made of burnt rubber or ash, mixed with anything liquid (including urine).
Tattooing isn’t exactly a legal service behind bars, yet despite that, many prisoners display tattoos that reveal some serious craftsmanship. Many also get tattooed after or before their prison sentence (after committing a crime/joining a gang, but before getting caught/arrested). However, that might not necessarily count as a ‘prison tattoo’.