If you were in a Soviet-era prison about oh, say 50 years ago, you’d have tattoos. A lot of them. But not just any tattoos, particular designs that were symbolic, that showed off your cred, and other interesting personal facts.
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Like a LinkedIn profile, those tattoos would show your “achievements.”
Tattoo artists were called “prickers”. They were in such high demand that prisoners would transfer into certain prisons just to be near a good artist
Images of a church or monastery meant that the person was a thief
The number of steeples on the church indicated the number of convictions.
Real criminals got eyes tattooed on the chest. It meant they were a senior criminal
The eyes said, “I’m watching you.” Eyes on the lower abdomen suggested “homosexual” because the genitalia looked like a nose beneath the eyes, forming a “face”.
A sailing ship tattoo meant that the owner is not committed to normal work
He’s a traveling thief, and likely to escape.
A professional criminal wore two 8-pointed stars, just below the collar bones
Stars on the knees showed a hate for authority, meaning, “I bow to no one.”
A bracelet tattoo on the wrist meant the owner had spent over 5 years in prison
Little crosses tattooed on the knuckles were tallies for trips to the “zone,” a.k.a. a prison or labor camp.
Erotic tattoos were shaming tattoos
These images were meant for prisoners who’d lost a card game, collaborated with the authorities, or broke a gang’s code of honor.
A tattoo of a skull with a knife through it signified that the person was a murderer
If a guy had a knife tattooed like it was stabbed through his throat, it meant not only that he killed someone, but also that he was a killer looking for work.
Having a tattoo of Lenin or Stalin over your chest or vital organs could protect you
It was believed that prison guards would not shoot an image of a revered leader.
Cat heads tattooed on the chest meant the bearer was cunning and deceptive
The tattooed letters “KOT,” which is “cat” in Russian, meant “native prison resident.”
Madonna and child – one of the most popular Russian prison tattoos
It could simply be a kind of good luck charm. It could also mean that the bearer had been in prison since childhood, or it can refer to loyalty towards a certain criminal gang.
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