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Russia's leading expert on criminal tattoos (siberiantimes.com)
129 points by rvikmanis on Dec 24, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 32 comments

Bronnikov's elder son Vladimir ... also served in police. After 17 years of service, he was badly beaten undertaking his duties and his spine was broken. He now walks on crutches. His younger son Evgeniy was beaten to death in the street when trying to save a girl from rapists.

What a dark reminder that in society's underbelly convict tattoos are a sign of prestige and no good deed goes unpunished. No wonder that in cultures with "well-developed" underbellies, altruistic behavior tends to be less prevalent.

Yes, when I see NKVD/KGB/FSB officers in full uniform, I think of nothing but good deeds and altruism.

..the criminal underbelly of a society is usually a small-scale reaction to the crimes officially sanctioned by the state.

That think that's giving too much credit to the criminal, organized crime all seems to come down to greed.

Organized crime all comes down to grey zones.

Areas where regular business forced not to go: prostitution, drugs, arms trade, shark loans.

There are perhaps places where all the economy is one large grey zone, but other than that, regular business (which does indeed come down to greed) out-competes organized crime.

> crimes officially sanctioned by the state.

Isn't this an oxymoron?

A few years back I picked up "Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Volumes 1-3" on Amazon[1] for something I was working on and they are fascinating.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Russian-Criminal-Tattoo-Encyclopaedia-...

The differences between Russian tattoo meanings and Australian is quite interesting. Especially the mention that for Russians the spider is a reference to drug users, while it is known in Australia to have been associated with pedophiles.

> while it is known in Australia to have been associated with pedophiles.

How that? If I were to sit in jail for molesting kids, the last thing I'd want is others to know about this. Pedophiles (and rapists) are the bottom in prison hierarchy.

I don't know about Australia but in Russia they don't ask you what you want. Such markings exist to warn others and there is usually a death penalty for removing/defacing one.

Yeah in Australia the markings of a spider or "rock spider" are usually inflicted upon paedophiles forcefully. I'm not sure of the penalty but as a subgroup of criminals within Australian jails paedophiles have been known to have a hard time.

I just watched Deadly Code (Siberian Education) http://www.netflix.com/search/deadly?jbv=70302183&jbp=1&jbr=... http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1697064/ with John Malkovich . The movie depicts some of the "thief" culture aspect.

More about the phenomenon in general:


I'm surprised no one has mentioned the movie Eastern Promises yet.


Was just about to. I read VM hung out with Russian ex-cons for several months to work on the role.

In one interview Viggo mentions how he went to a Russian restaurant during a film break while he still had the tattoos on. Everyone in the restaurant stopped talking when he came in, when he realized why, he decided he shouldn't go off set while still in makeup.

Interestingly enough, this man served in the army together with Kim Il-Sung and Peng Dehuai.

An excellent Russian documentary on this topic is "The Mark of Cain" [0]. It goes into a lot of detail and interviews with prisoners, as well as a good portion of the film focused on the tattoo traditions in women's prisons.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mark_of_Cain_(2000_film)

Trying to learn more about Russian prison tattoos some time ago. There is lots of contradictory and vague descriptions on the meanings and symbolism of Russian prison tattoos on the web. At times it seems a lot like tea leaf reading. The tattoos seem to mean anything you want.

I wonder if there really is such a thing as a commonly understood tattoo language that criminals know and enforce. Maybe in soviet times, but today?

I think location plays a large role in their 'meaning'/importance

Reminds me of this passage from Infinite Jest, detailing Tiny Ewell's obsession with tattoos: https://books.google.ca/books?id=Nhe2yvx6hP8C&lpg=PT148&ots=...

Fascinating, but aren't tattoos a big part of prison/gang culture in other countries besides Russia/USSR?

The difference it that in Russia/USSR it was taken more seriously, became more formalized, by now has about 100 years of tradition behind it.

In US I would imagine, for example, tattoos would be more gang centered and would have meaning within one gang, but not a general unified set of symbols or meanings that everyone accepts. Like say "cross on the left shoulder means abandoned by parents" or something like that.

>The difference it that in Russia/USSR it was taken more seriously, became more formalized

in particular many tattoos serve the role similar to military insignia and one just isn't allowed (i.e. would be punished severely) to wear symbols or the number of it which doesn't match his/her position in the hierarchy (which is pretty firmly enforced multi-level developed one in the Russian prisons) or his/her history like number of prison terms served and severity of the crimes committed.

They are in Japan too. But, as far as I know, they do not record the bearer's criminal history like Russian ones.

The reason the whole tattoo code has been developed in Russia is unique to the way prisoners have been treated, I believe. While most people live in the European part of Russia, the prisons have been traditionally located in the Asian part (Siberia). Getting an inmate to the place of incarceration could take several months or years and consisted of a series of transfers between smaller prisons. Criminal organizations needed a way to establish credentials during this process as well as inside a remote Siberian prison, far away from where the organization normally operates.

Most certainly, Australia has a plethora of drug related tattoo meanings. E.g. "route 66" road signs are associated with speed use amongst some circles.

Why do people tattoo their specific drug addiction/use? Does it serve some purpose, like untraceable/unprovable communication to set up drug deals?

I guess it's kind of like having a Github sticker on your laptop.

Really interesting article - one thing that caught my eye though, was the Looney Tunes wallpaper in their kitchen. That seems like an odd thing to find deep inside Russia.

Why's this newspaper published in English?

So it can be read by a wider audience? There are many English-language local papers.

There are, I know, but I'd mainly associated them with parts of the world where English is second language. I'd assumed the common language was Russian across Siberia with not much English but I guess it's more complex.

Absolutely fascinating. I wonder if he consults for films as well.

Very Interesting!

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