Criminal tattoo  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Criminal tattoos are a type of tattoos associated with criminals to show gang membership and record the wearer's personal history—such as their skills, specialties, accomplishments, incarceration, world view and/or means of personal expression. Tattoos are strongly empirically associated with deviance, personality disorders, and criminality.

Certain tattoo designs have developed recognized coded meanings.


Common body tattoos and their significance (NOTE: these tattoos are mostly characteristic of the Old regime, when the Vory V Zakone was more structured in prisons):

  • 243 in a badge: signifies the wearer has committed battery on a police officer. Often worn on the arm or hand used for the assault. Taken from the California penal code.
  • Barbed wire across the forehead signifies a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole (tattoos on the face usually signifies an expectation that the bearer will never leave prison). Barbed wire on the forearms or around the wrist signifies years served.
  • Bells indicate a sentence served in full.
  • Birds over horizon: "I was born free and should be free." Bearer longs for life outside prison.
  • Cat: a career as thief. A single cat means the bearer worked alone; several cats mean the bearer was part of a gang. The word "cat," in Russian, forms an acronym indicating the wearer's natural home is in prison. Alternately, can signify cleverness.
  • Celtic Cross: Part of the racist white power movement. It has also been used to represent crosshairs of a gun, meaning that wearer is a hit man and he too will meet a violent end one day.
  • Churches, mosques, fortresses, etc. are often tattooed on the chest, back, or hand. The number of spires or towers can represent the years a prisoner has been incarcerated, or number of times he has been imprisoned. A cross at the top of the spire indicates that the sentence was paid in full. The phrase, "The Church is the House of God," often inscribed beneath a cathedral, has the metaphorical meaning, "Prison is the Home of the Thief."
  • Dots on knuckles: number of years served in prison.
  • Epaulets: Military insignia and uniform are worn on the shoulders. This symbolizes criminal accomplishments. When a skull symbol is portrayed with it, it usually designates a man as a murderer. Epaulets are decorated with certain crests and symbols in the sections where one can see the skull there prior to conviction, especially when it was of any significance.
  • Madonna and baby Jesus indicates that the bearer is 'clean before his friends' in that he will never betray them to authorities. May also symbolize having become a criminal early in life.
  • Mermaid: indicates a conviction of child molestation
  • MIR: The Russian word for "peace," an acronym that indicates "only a firing squad will reform me."
  • Dagger in neck: Signifies that the bearer has killed and is available for hire to kill other prisoners.
  • Executioner: Murderer, or that they follow the The Thieves' Code
  • Goat: Informer, an animal without honour. Probably given unwillingly as a mark of humiliation.
  • Lenin, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels: Usually tattooed across the chest or over vital organs. Mostly characteristic of the Old regime; prisoners would tattoo them because the firing squad could not shoot the images of USSR's founding fathers.
  • Rose (white-dried): Death is preferable to loss of virtue.
  • Rose with thorns: Bearer came of age in prison.
  • Spider or spider web: may symbolize racism or doing time in prison
  • Spider web: If the spider is in the centre, the bearer is dedicated to a life of crime; if it is climbing out of the web, the bearer is trying to reform himself. A few other versions are that the wearer is a drug addict, like an insect trapped in a spider's web he is trapped in some kind of a narcotic web, or that it signifies time in prison as each ring of the spider web represents one year in prison.
  • Tombstones represent the loss of time. You may see the number of years that are served (i.e. five tombstones reading 2001–2005 means the prisoner has done five years).
  • SS: two sig runes were the symbol of the Schutzstaffel, Nazi insignia. Indicative of hostility to the USSR and communism, or to government authority in general.
  • Stars: Worn on the knees: signifies that the owner will kneel before no man.
  • Stars: Worn on the shoulders: Signifies that the owner is a man of discipline, status, and tradition. Men will also receive stars when promoted to "Captain" in the Vory V Zakone.
  • Swastika: This is seen on Neo-Nazis as it is the symbol of the Nazi party. Previously indicative of hatred for the Soviet regime and a preference to serve even the Nazis rather than the communists.
  • Cross: A small cross either on the forehead, finger or between the thumb and forefinger is sometimes seen on convicts as a symbol of serving time in prison.

There is another category of tattoos—of rings on the fingers and symbols on the hands—which informs other inmates of the bearer's rank when the bearer is clothed:

  • Five dots: four watchtowers and a convict.
  • Devil's head: 'Grin'. 'I hold a grudge against the authorities'.
  • Single dot: 'I escaped'.
  • SLON: an acronym that spells the Russian word for elephant but which stands for, 'From my early years nothing but misery'.
  • Crosses on knuckles: 'Trips to the zone'. 'I've been in prison three times'.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Criminal tattoo" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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