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Criminal tattoo

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Tattoos are commonly used among criminals to show gang membership[1] and record the wearer's personal historysuch as his or her skills, specialties, accomplishments and convictions. They are also used as a means of personal expression. Certain designs have developed recognized coded meanings.[2] The code systems can be quite complex and because of the nature of what they encode, the tattoo designs are not widely recognized.

A Mara Salvatrucha gang member with a tattoo showing his gang membership
A member of the Mexican Mafia has the organization's name tattoed on his abdomen

Tattooing in prison

Further information: Prison tattooing

Tattooing is forbidden in most prisons. It is therefore done in secret, with makeshift equipment. Some tattoos are made using melted rubber from the sole of a shoe, soot and/or ash, and urine for some sterilization.

In Russian prisons, "...the pain does deter even the most macho convict from covering his body, all at once, with meaningful pictures. Tattoos are created by instilling pigment in the skin with thousands of needle pricks. In the camps, the process can take anywhere from a few hours to a few years, depending on the artist and his ambition, says Mr. Bronnikov. Because of prison conditions, tattoo artists have to improvise with materials and equipment. For instance, they will draw a picture on a wooden plank, place needles along the lines of the design, cover the needles with ink and stamp the whole tableau on the prisoner's body. Another method is to slice the image onto the skin with a razor and daub the cut with indelible ink. Usually, prisoners manage to get an electric shaver and a syringe with a needle, which they jury-rig into a tattooing machine. Ink is hard to come by, so to make dye, artists will often burn the heel of a shoe, and mix the ash with the prisoner's own urine -- a practice convicts believe lessens the chance of infection."[3]


Russia and former Soviet republics

Main articles: Vory V Zakone and Russian mafia

Russian criminal tattoos have a complex system of symbols which can give quite detailed information about the wearer. Not only do the symbols carry meaning but the area of the body on which they are placed may be meaningful too. The initiation tattoo of a new gang member is usually placed on the chest and may incorporate a rose. A rose on the chest is also used within the Russian Mafia. Wearing false or unearned tattoos is punishable in the criminal underworld, usually by removal of the tattoo, followed by beatings and sometimes rape, or even murder. Tattoos can be removed (voluntarily, in the case of loss of rank, new affiliation, "life style" change, etc.) by bandaging magnesium powder onto the surface of the skin, which dissolves the skin bearing the marks with painful caustic burns. This powder is gained by filing "light alloy" e.g. lawnmower casing, and is a jailhouse commodity.

"As Russia's leading expert on tattoo iconography, Mr. Arkady Bronnikov can tell the prisoner's story from looking at the designs on his body. The huge spider in a web that is drawn on his skull reveals, in prison tattoo code, that he is a drug addict. Also, he is a repeat offender: The onion domes of a Russian church fan across his shoulder blades, each of the seven cupolas representing a different stay in prison. Above the church, across the back of his neck, the convict has stencilled, in Russian, "Not just anyone can hold his head this high."... "The more tattoos a convict gets, the more sentences he has served, the more respect he gets in prison," says the 66-year-old Mr. Bronnikov. "The tattoos show that he isn't afraid of pain." [3]

Tattoos done in a Russian prison often have a distinct bluish color (due to being made with ink from a ballpoint pen) and usually appear somewhat blurred because of the lack of instruments to draw fine lines. The ink is often created from burning the heel of a shoe and mixing the soot with urine, and injected into the skin utilizing a sharpened guitar string attached to an electric shaver.[4]

"In [Russian] prison, the ink for tattoos was manufactured from molten rubber mixed with water and sugar. Artists used sewing needles sharpened on concrete cell floors. Sometimes, portraits of Stalin and Lenin--with or without horns--were in fashion, sometimes monasteries and medieval knights. Occasionally, caricatures of Communists with pig snouts or prison guards in wolf guise were the rage. Maps of the gulag system, with Russia portrayed as a giant prison camp might be etched across someone's back. Crucifixion scenes were popular. Ronald Reagan was even a subject, according to a Russian dictionary of prison slang."[5]

In addition to voluntary tattooing, tattoos are used to stigmatize and punish individuals within the criminal society. They may be placed on an individual who fails to pay debts in card games, or otherwise breaks the criminal code, and often have very blatant sexual images, embarrassing the wearer. Tattoos on the forehead are sometimes forcibly applied, and designed both to humiliate the bearer and warn others about him or her. They frequently consist of slurs about the bearer's ethnicity, sexual orientation, or perceived collusion with the prison authorities. They can indicate that the bearer is a member of a political group considered offensive by other prisoners (e.g. Vlasovite), or has been convicted of a crime (such as child rape) which is disapproved of by other criminals. They can also advertise that the bearer is "downcast", or of the lowest social caste in the prison, usually used for sexual gratification of higher ranked inmates. Voluntary facial tattoos signify that the bearer does not expect to be released back into normal society within his lifetime, and will usually consist of tattoos on the eyelids of messages such as "Don't Wake Me Up." They are managed by inserting a metal spoon under the eyelid so the tattoo needle does not pierce the eye.

Tattoos that consist of political or anti-authoritarian statements are known as "grins". They are often tattooed on the stomach of a thief in law, as a means of acquiring status in the criminal community. A Russian criminologist, Yuri Dubyagin, has claimed that, during the Soviet era, there existed "secret orders" that an anti-government tattoo must be "destroyed surgically", and that this procedure was usually fatal.[citation needed] Tattoos of the portraits of Soviet leaders like Lenin and Stalin were often applied on the chest due to a belief that firing squads were forbidden to shoot at the leaders' portraits.


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.
  • 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.[6]
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • MIR: The Russian word for "peace," an acronym that indicates "only a firing squad will reform me."
  • Dagger: sex offender
  • 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[6]
  • 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.[7]
  • Rose with thorns: Bearer came of age in prison.
  • Spider or spider web: may symbolize racism or doing time in prison[8]
  • 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 20012005 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.
  • Skulls: Signifies murder, if the murder was significant enough to merit the tattoo. Military insignia and uniform epaulets 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.
  • 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 tattoosof rings on the fingerswhich informs other inmates of the bearer's rank when the bearer is clothed.


Tattooed Yakuza gangsters

Many yakuza have full-body tattoos, known as irezumi in Japan. Though these tattoos were once common among working class Japanese, the practice was banned following the Meiji restoration. During the US occupation after WWII, this law was repealed, but tattoos are now considered part and parcel of being a yakuza and nothing else, leading tattoos to becoming a big taboo in Japan.


Tattoo marking a deserter from the British Army. Skin removed post-mortem.

Prisoners who were transported from Britain to Australian penal colonies between 1787 and 1867 were sometimes tattooed with marks intended to signify disgrace, for example D for deserter. Prisoners often modified these tattoos to conceal the original design or to express wry or rebellious messages.[9]



In France, five dots tattoo resembling the dots on a die, placed on the hand between index finger and thumb are found on prison inmates. This tattoo represents the individual between the four walls of the prison cell (un homme entre quatre mursa man between four walls); this also has the same meaning in Russia.

Tattoos of three dots on the hand means "death to cops" (mort aux vaches).

Serbian gangster in jail

A single dot on the cheek usually means the wearer is a pimp (point des maquereaux).

A stick figure holding a trident is also a common French prison tattoo.


"La Stidda," a Mafia-style criminal organization in Sicily, is known for using star tattoos to identify members.

North America

Common tattoos are names of relatives or gang members, symbols of aggression, tattoos advertising a particular skill, or religious imagery. One of the most well-known tattoos is the teardrop tattoo.

Another common tattoo in American prisons and jails, especially for Hispanic inmates, is four dots or three dots. The dots represent that you have earned your keep in your gang. The three dots would represent the 13 of the southern gangs and the same for the northern gangs with four dots :: for 14.

See also

  • 18th Street Gang
  • Gang signal
  • HWDP, Polish anti-Police acronym
  • List of Chinese criminal organizations
  • List of criminal enterprises, gangs and syndicates
  • MS-13
  • Organized crime
  • Russian Mafia
  • Thief in law
  • Triad (underground society)
  • Yakuza



  1. ^ "Criminal Tattoo History & Tattoo meanings". source. Retrieved 2009. 
  2. ^ "About - Criminal tattoo". source. Retrieved 2009. 
  3. ^ a b By, N. B. (1992, Jul 29). Russian convicts use body language of their very own --- prison tattoos spell out lives of crime and establish the hierarchy of inmates. Wall Street Journal.
  4. ^ "Russian prison tattoos". Foreigner prisoner support service. 
  5. ^ Williams, D. (2000, May 29). Russia journal; prison gave artist a career in the skin trade. The Washington Post.
  6. ^ a b The Mark of Cain (2000), film on Russian criminal tattoos; DVD, ASIN B0011UBDV8
  7. ^ Tattoo Motif and Symbolism
  8. ^ Spider Web Tattoos - What Do They Mean?
  9. ^ Niyi Awofeso (June 2004). "Prison argot and penal discipline". Journal of Mundane Behavior 5 (1). Archived from the original on June 1, 2005. 

Other sources

  • Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Volume I Danzig Baldaev, ISBN 3-88243-920-3
  • Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Volume II Danzig Baldaev, ISBN 978-0-9550061-2-8
  • Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Volume III Danzig Baldaev, ISBN 978-0-9550061-9-7
  • Russian Prison Tattoos: Codes of Authority, Domination and Struggle Alix Lambert, ISBN 0-7643-1764-4

Further reading

  • By, N. B. (1992, Jul 29). Russian convicts use body language of their very own --- prison tattoos spell out lives of crime and establish the hierarchy of inmates. Wall Street Journal.
  • Glover, S. (1997, Oct 18). A marked man from tattoo to taps; violence: Out of jail and 35, robert torres was ready for a fresh start, but a gang insignia betrayed him. Los Angeles Times.
  • Lina Goldberg, Gang Tattoos: Signs of Belonging and the Transience of Signs
  • Hiatt, F. (1993, Aug 23). Gulag no longer, but still the lower depths; for many of the 1 million Russian prisoners, life inside is `Equal to torture'. The Washington Post (Pre-1997 Fulltext).
  • Top tattoos, [1]
  • Williams, D. (2000, May 29). Russia journal; prison gave artist a career in the skin trade. The Washington Post.
  • Wahlstedt, E. (2010). "Tattoos and criminality: a study on the origins and uses of tattoos in criminal subcultures"
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