Russian prisons put the “hard” into “hard time”. Over-population, power struggles and violence are an every day part of life in Russian prisons. Convicts have created a caste system; a hierarchy of leaders and lieutenants, followers and outcasts. To communicate their status to others, prisoners wear tattoos that reveal their rank, their crimes and their motives.
Stars, skulls, eyes and cathedrals are just a few of the symbols that are used in Russian prison tattoos. Each of these symbols has a meaning which is affected by the placement of the tattoo and the numbers of each symbol found on the body. The tattoos of Russian criminals are referred to as a “topcoat and tails”, although Russian criminal tattoos appear across the body from the head to the feet. Stars placed on the shoulders are a symbol that the tattoo wearer is worthy of respect and fear, while tattoos on the knees are worn by those in power as a symbol that they will not kneel to anyone.
Russian prison tattoos emerged in the 19th century, with prisoners being tattooed with the word “KAT”, an abbreviation for “Katorzhnik” which means “sentenced to hard labor”. These tattoos became a symbol of pride for criminals, as they now wore proof that they were hardened criminals and had served time. Russian inmates then began marking themselves with other symbols that revealed information about their criminal activities; what they had done, how much prison time they had served, where they had been and which groups they were affiliated with. The tradition of Russian criminal tattoos continues to this day as a silent message to the world that the tattoo wearer has performed criminal acts.