The tattoos worn by Russian prisoners are not just symbolic decorations. The tattoos show that there is culture, structure and power within the prisons. Tattoos can tell which part of Russia someone comes from, how high or how low their status is in the prison population, what role they serve in the prison culture, what groups they are with and other characteristics. The prison culture in Russia seems like a very difficult place, however by having a rich subculture the prisoners can feel that they are in power, and not the authorities who put them there. It is therefore not a surprise that many of the tattoos indicate hatred of authorities.
These tattoos represent many things in that culture, from status and crime to allegiance and beliefs. This is a practice that began long ago in the 19th century when authorities would force convicts to get “kat” tattooed on them. While it began as a way for the prison system to organize prisoners, prisoners themselves began to use the system. This is a form of cultural lag, where culture or technology finds new ways of using that which the formal powers have created (Croteau & Hoynes, 2012). This is because the real intent was for the authorities to have symbols to categorize prisoners to control them, but the prisoners adopted this idea and used it for their own ends. When prisoners began to use tattoos to send messages to one another the authorities in the prison system lost some control over this population.

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If a prisoner arrives at prison for the first time with symbols of certain groups, such as the six pointed star of the thieves in law, then that person might even be killed for unauthorized use of that symbol. The six pointed stars of this group must be earned through time in prison and showing toughness in that environment. This is an important value of the Russian criminal and prison culture.

The knowledge of this group includes what the prison tattoos mean, and how to make tattoo ink and guns out of common objects. The meanings of tattoos are kept fairly secret, and so it becomes a private language within that culture. When someone finally offered to provide the meanings of many tattoo symbols it was a breakthrough for those in the system who were trying to understand which criminals posed the greatest threat. The body’s artwork has more information than a criminal record, which only states the crimes committed where someone was caught. The ability to make ink and other things needed to make tattoos is only a small part of the knowledge which these people have. Still, it is fairly complex knowledge as it involves chemical and biochemistry knowledge, such as the use of urine of the person being tattooed to make the ink so that it does not cause infection. There are other beliefs related to this, such as using the urine of another person making the person being tattooed a homosexual. This belief reinforces the fact that people only want their own urine used in making the ink for their tattoo.

The norms of Russian prison culture include a significant amount of violence. This is reflected in the stories that are told by tattoos. This includes the violence that the criminals have inflicted on others and the violence that is inflicted on them. High ranking tattoos tell of someone who had to commit violence. Other symbols indicate that one is not afraid of anything, not even the violence of other criminals or authorities. Punishment by either group typically consists of violent acts such as beatings and rape.

  • Croteau, D., & Hoynes, W. (2012). Experience sociology. McGraw-Hill Higher Education.