If I could explain my lifelong interest in criminality and counter-cultural underworlds, by heck I’d do it right here and now. I’m the squarest person you’d ever meet, I swear, but for whatever reason, I’ve also studied my way into being a top-shelf expert on subjects like the history of the Hell’s Angels, for instance. Why? I dunno. It just is. One of those things.
So I was glued to the TV today when the History Channel broadcast an episode of its series about body art, Marked, that focused on the complex secret language of Russian criminal tattoos. What was this particular episode dedicated to Russians called? “Pure Evil.” Yeah, that about sums it up. It’s not that these guys have committed particularly bizarre crimes. One man’s first stint in prison was for 7 years — punishment for stealing two heads of cabbage. For many, stealing began as a crime of survival. The problem is that the Russian prison system, particularly the gulags during communist rule, was barbaric and animalistic past what nice Westerners like us can even begin to imagine. This brutal and sadistic life had its effects, creating hardened career criminals with a deep set of moral and symbolic codes.
And you should see these guys. They’re even scary when they’re on TV and you’re sitting in your living room, as they show the camera scores of stab and gunshot scars on their bodies like they’re reading you today’s specials from a menu. You know you’re a pansy when one guy’s tour of stab scars moves to between his eyes. Yeah, that’s right, the dude has been stabbed in the face. What did you do today? Mutter a naughty word at a jammed printer? Huff at someone walking too slow in front of you? Man, these guys have survived some shit.
I remember noticing how much detail appeared to have gone into the tattoos on Viggo Mortensen’s Russian mob character in the film Eastern Promises. Certainly, the scene (pictured) where his new employers ask him to strip and show his ink is dead on. In the Russian underworld, tattoos are your life story. You don’t speak, you show. Little did I know that director David Cronenberg spent a considerable amount of time getting the artwork precisely correct, as detailed in this film-nerd blog, which dissects every image on Mortensen’s body. Reportedly, these tatts were applied with semi-permanent ink so they wouldn’t need to be continually redone, and Viggo noticed a sudden and pronounced fearful reaction from Russians who saw him offset during this time. The hand tattoos in particular — where large “rings” indicate crimes and where time has been served — are some of the most menacing.
There’s pretty much one source for understanding these images and their meaning, and it’s the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, published in 2004 by Danzig Baldaev, a former prison attendant… Despite some of these images being used as far back as the 1920s (and having dispersed somewhat in post-Soviet Russia), this was literally the first time such information was made available to the public. It’s an incredible bit of anthropology that deserves respect, but alas, some folks have been stupid enough to create t-shirts with these images on them. I guess this is another one of those Darwinian things. If you’re stupid enough to WALK AROUND wearing symbolic images regarding the RUSSIAN FUCKING MOB, then I guess you deserve what you get. Dumbasses.
Some of the more interesting bits from both the book and the History Channel program:
- Images of Russian orthodox cathedrals, as shown at right, are not religious. They indicate number of terms served, with each dome indicating a stint in prison.
- Stars on each shoulder by the collarbone are earned — they indicate that the wearer is, for all practical purposes, an “alpha” criminal. The same stars on the knees, as shown above, prove the highest rank, and indicate that the wearer will bow to, or get on his knees for, no one.
- Individuals that rank within particular criminal organizations often have epaulets, medals and ribbons tattooed directly onto their skin.
- A cross on the chest, even one featuring a crucified Christ, is also not religious. It shows that you’re a “prince of thieves,” and the image of Christ demonstrates that you’ve been crucified for your crimes. This ink is also considered a high honor.
- Skull tattoos are worn by murderers, with different details to show whether it was committed during a crime, as a for-hire hitman, etc.
- Spiders and spiderwebs are commonly shown. A spider crawling upward indicates the wearer is still a thief; a spider moving downward indicates they’ve “retired.”
- Barbed wire, around a wrist or ankle, indicates number of years of a prison term — one year for each barb.
- A snake around the neck or shoulders indicates that the wearer feels that the Soviets/communism are suffocating them or has them in their grips.
- And perhaps one of the most telling types of tattoo in terms of understanding life in these horrific gulags are those of Stalin and Lenin. These images were impeccable in their realistic depiction, and were generally located on the chest or covering vital organs. Criminals certainly didn’t have any love for these dictators, but they knew that prison guards would never beat them on these images, or put them in a firing line, for fear of denigrating the image. Clever. And horrible.