Russia’s history with tattoos is predominantly centered around its rich and complex prison tattoo culture, a practice that has been fading for decades – especially in the face of a younger generation embracing skin art and piercings as a form of personal adornment rather than criminal identification. Nonetheless, Russian prison tattoo art is a powerful and interesting motif, with plenty of references in both Russian and foreign pop culture.

Examples include Russian prison fighter Yuri Boyka in Undisputed 2 and 3, portrayed by Scott Adkins, as well as Keanu Reeves’ recent action hit John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, wherein he reprises his role as an American hitman formerly working for a Belarusian mob (although in this case, it’s implied to be tied to the organization’s culture, rather than Russian prisons).

More than just a simple code for identification, Russian prison tattoo art weaves complex and individual tales of yearning for freedom, relishing in the past, or swearing revenge upon a traitor, the authorities, or a scornful woman. Many motifs are recurring and carry important meanings – like the many-pointed star, manacles, military medals, and epaulettes – and many can be interpreted in a number of ways, from swastikas to large-scale depictions of The Madonna and Child.

How did the Russian criminal tattoo tradition begin?

It’s hard to pin an exact year on when the practice first originated, but much like its oriental neighbors China and Japan, Russia branded its criminals and deserters with ink for a long time before the rise of its complex prison art culture. Common ways of branding deserters included a cross pricked on their left hand, while criminals were branded with acronyms on their foreheads, cheeks, or forearms.

Common acronyms included ‘BOP’ (pronounced vor, or thief) and ‘KAT’, a three-letter acronym tattooed on a criminal’s face to mean “каторжник”, or “katoržnik”, a word for criminals serving hard labor in the Siberian penal colony of Katorga. The practice of branding criminals with ink was officially forbidden by law in 1863, during the waning years of the Russian Empire.

However, the thieves (vory) embraced tattooing. It gave them a way to identify themselves, take pride in their actions, and communicate their life stories without long tales. Tattoos in Russian prisons served as a useful identifier among criminals to establish who was following the code, and who wasn’t. A full body suit of tattoos was referred to in criminal jargon as a ‘tailcoat with decorations’, in reference to military uniforms, and much the same, the tattoos often served as a chronicle of the individual’s crimes, professions, sentences, and failures.

Because means of tattooing weren’t exactly easy to come by at the time, the prisoners created the ink by melting rubber and mixing it with urine (the tattoo owner’s own urine, typically, to prevent further complications). Tattoo artists were called kol’shchiki (prickers) and used a variety of tools, eventually using electric shavers (mashinka) rigged to sharp needles with ink ampoules. Complications were common, including infections and swollen lymph nodes.

Their ranks began to drop around the WWII, after recruitment by the Red Army led to a schism among the thieves, as many decided to fight in the war, directly disobeying one of the cardinal rules of the Thieves’ Code (never ever cooperate with authorities). This led to the ‘Bitch wars’ (Suki voyny), and a constant rivalry between ‘bitches’ (traitors) helped by prison guards, and the loyal traditional thieves, who continued to abide by the rules.

Stalin’s extremely heavy-handed policies in the 40s led to a stark increase in prison populations, especially in hard labor camps. The practice was emphasized as a way to separate a ‘noble thief’, or ‘thief-in-law’ (вор в зако́не/vor v zakone) from a political prisoner.

A decade later, Nikita Khrushchev sought to eliminate the positive image of the ‘thief-in-law’, using propaganda to tarnish its public image while intensified beatings and torture in prisons for anyone identifying themselves as a legitimate thief led to a stricter interpretation of the thieves’ code, with even harsher punishments for non-thieves sporting illegitimate tattoos. Khrushchev’s reforms reduced the size of Russian gulags tremendously, cutting deep into vory power, while many suki went free and reorganized themselves into a different criminal structure, with a new code. As tattoos became more popular over the years and the vory lost their influence, the practice faded. The 70s and onwards saw more and more references to Russian criminal tattoos, and knowledge of this old practice seeped into the mainstream.

What do Russian criminal tattoos mean?

There are many references for Russian criminal tattoos online, as well as extensive records of criminal tattoos based on USSR-era police files. Motifs vary greatly from individual to individual, but the most common source are the artworks and icons of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has a history of over 1,000 years in Russia. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that vory were devoutly religious. In some ways, their use of Orthodox iconography might have been in direct opposition to the official anti-religious stance that the USSR represented.

More often than not, imagery from the Church was used to tell a tale relating to the criminal’s own past, rather than in reverence of God, Christ, or the Virgin Mary. The depiction of The Madonna and Child would mean that a particular criminal had been in the penal system since they were young. A rose on one’s chest meant they turned 18 in prison.

Another common motif was military regalia. Again, in mockery of the actual military, which many criminals despised. Although some vory were ex-military (which was sometimes denoted as lines between the points of their shoulder stars), the military was an authority, and their code strictly forbade all cooperation with any authority. Common elements of military regalia pictured on criminals include epaulettes and medals. Pointed stars represented criminal authority. More points meant more years in prison.

Symbols of the Russian Empire were also commonly used to display defiance against the USSR, including the double-headed eagle. Nazi symbols, particularly the swastika, are thought to represent the fascism of the guards rather than mark the particular prisoner as a Nazi themselves (though some were).

Many different motifs were used to describe the exact nature of the crime for which a criminal was sentenced, as well as the number of years, and the frequency of the crime. Some tattoos depicting crimes were purposefully tattooed, much like a ‘calling card’ (for example, a monetary bill indicated a counterfeiter, while a dollar sign on a bowtie denoted a safe cracker), while other criminals were forcibly tattooed to single them out for regular punishment and low status, including rapists and child molesters (tattooed with women in dresses and mermaids respectively). Manacles on the wrists denoted 5 years for every manacle, while a skull could mean a life sentence.

Symbols that referenced a criminal’s longing for freedom were also common, including light shining through prison bars, birds, the horizon, and the Statue of Liberty (as well as other apparent symbols of freedom).

Many motifs were taken straight from English sailor culture, including various sea animals, anchors, and ships.

What about today?

Tattoo culture in Russia today tells a very different tale. Tattooing is not illegal in Russia and has grown in popularity over the last few years, although older generations still recall when a tattoo generally branded a person as a hardened criminal. Russian tattoo artists today explore a vast number of different motifs – one of particular interest is a skin art adaptation of Khokhloma painting, a style of wood painting that uses mostly gold and red colors to paint berries, flowers, and leaf patterns.

And much like anywhere else in the world, many get tattoos just to celebrate their individuality, or to imprint a deeper and personal meaning onto their skin, or to make a point.

The inspirations that led to Russian criminal tattoos are still there, and still provide for powerful imagery. Religious icons, symbols of freedom, and symbols of beauty like the rose still make for classic motifs, although tattooed Russians today opt for the sanitary and safe environment of a tattoo parlor rather than a dank cell.