Russian criminal tattoos were originally simple and decorative, with no real meaning to them. Later on, they were regarded more seriously when tattooed people, bearing symbols of strength on their bodies, started claiming leadership. Tattoos then became a kind of secret language because criminals needed a form of communication both in and out of prison.
The meanings of criminal symbols were dictated by necessity and over the years there were revisions and re-evaluations of drawings. Gradually tattoos began to convey the social attitudes and values of their bearer. For example, if there are hexagonal or octagonal stars tattooed on a convict’s shoulders, it means that in prison, he’ll join those who are against prison regulations. If there is a hand grasping a knife tattooed on the leg, then it will be clear for those who know the symbols that this man was convicted for being a thug. Criminals often flaunt these attributes and their tattoos, which help them to separate themselves as “initiated persons” from the rest of the “lames” (fools).
Tattoos can be classified as ornamental, professional, artistic, pornographic, religious, historical, symbolic, and abbreviations. There are many tattoos, worn by both men and women, of historic events with all sorts of inscriptions of tsarist Russia and of the Soviet period. Tattoos meanings also differ depending on what part of the body they are on. The criminal tattoo is generally called “nakolka” (derivative from the word “to pierce”), and its bearers “sineva” – “the blue ones” (due to the faded blue color of India ink under the skin).
Criminal tattoos throughout the territories of the former USSR are considerably diverse, even more so with the break-up of the USSR. The types of tattoos change, become outdated, are substituted by new ones, or are partially simplified and less varied. The best way to learn about criminal tattoos is by direct contact.
Nikolai is a criminal tattooer. As a rule, people who were in jail are very unwilling to talk about “that” part of their past. Nikolai is a rare exception, but even he tries to insure himself: “I don’t say anything that coppers don’t know.” And in response to the offer of photographing his tattoos he said, “For God’s sake, you’re welcome, but by no means my face”. He was put into prison for plunder and robbery of state property and spent six years there from 1981 to 1987. He served time in Kaliningrad (presently Russia), Vilnius (Lithuania) and most of the term in Byelorussia.
If a person doesn’t belong to the underworld, he’s making something in prison; there are those who make crosses, chains, and postcards. Some inmates mint, joiner, or do carpentry. Everything is done according to one’s inclination, and Nikolai was inclined to tattooing. He began trying, got “permission” (specialty in prison) and during his first year earned the first dot on the hand (see photo). During his second year he put on the second dot. It’s like a five-star rating of hotels and movies; the highest rating is five dots and you have to earn every dot based on the number and quality of the tattoos you ink.
The news that there is a specialist in tattooing spreads very quickly, first in the detachment and then in the whole prison. Tattooers are not rare, but highly rated experts are. There exist “third,” “second,” and “first hand” tattooers, who are masters of the highest category (all five dots). These tattooers don’t spend time on “captives” or “crums,” prisoners who implicitly obey all orders both from prison officials and the underworld. Nor do they tattoo “goats,” prisoners who collaborate with the authorities and hold internal posts. They tattoo the most influential criminals or “big shots.” But such a situation comes only when you get the third dot. And when Nikolai became the “first hand,” he got booked up for tattoos a month in advance.
There is a strict hierarchy in prison. At first Nikolai trained himself on “crums.” Every other inmate wants to have at least the simplest tattoo — a ribbon with the name of his place of confinement. It took 20-30 minutes of work with a mechanical machine to earn a pack of tea, a very popular form of payment in prisons. Prisoners use it to make a strong narcotic drink called “chifir”. Paying for tattoos can take any form: money, food, liquors, tea, cigarettes, etc. Each prison has different rates, but the more it is “kept down”, the higher the rates. The standard payment for a small drawing of average complexity is 10 Rubles. With a tattoo machine, it would take one to one and a half hours.
Tattooing can happen during the day or night, but at night it’s calmer. A man who wants to get a tattoo makes all the arrangements: payment, food, place, discharge of the master from prison works, security (it is enough to give 25 Rubles to the guard so that he doesn’t show up in the detachment for the whole night). The master’s task is only to come at the appointed time with the machine, fill the order, and get his payment.
As a specialist Nikolai had serious privileges; he was never enlisted in general works, could freely move within the living and labor zones, and always had money, food and other things of value in jail. The first hand tattooer is a respected person, and all of this is secured to him by secret criminal power. [divider]
By Valery Sibrikov
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