Tattoos on Russia’s Soviet-era gangland prisoners that can be read like a criminal underworld CV

The tattoos are the fading symbols of a life dedicated to bloodshed, violence, and an unspoken moral code in the criminal underworld.

But far from a motley collection of meaningless drawings and letters, each tattoo has its own meaning and, to those who know, can be read like a curriculum vitae of the bearer’s gangland past.

In the Soviet era the tattoos of a vor v zakone (thief-in-law) acted as a CV- to have no tattoos in the thief’s world meant you had no identity and no social status.

They conveyed coded secret messages, despite using a number of images traditional in tattooing such as religious iconography, or stars.

For example a dagger in the neck means the bearer has killed and would kill again for the right price (the number of blood drops on the blade signify the number of murders he has committed), while a rose on the shoulder means he turned 18 in prison.

Any tattoos that did not reflect your actual rank, or were false, were forcibly removed with a sandpaper or a brick. An incorrect tattoo could even lead to you being killed.

The images have been brilliantly serialised in works by photographer Sergei Vasiliev and former prison guard Danzig Baldaev featured here, alongside newly released images in a new book called Russian Criminal Tattoos and Playing Cards, by Arkady Bronnikov.

It explores the overlapping nature of tattoos and the banned card games in Soviet-era prisons.

The language of cards was applied to inmates according to their status within the zone (prison).

The suit of clubs or spades, the main symbol of a ‘legitimate thief’, is a recurring motif in their tattoos.

The red suits ‘lower’ the bearer’s status within the zone when applied as tattoos. The symbol of hearts transforms the bearer into an erotic object, denoting that he plays the role of a ‘woman’.

The symbol of diamonds is forcibly applied to informers and can lead to sexual violence.

Making the actual cards for the games was a delicate process and involved putting two sheets of paper glued together.

They usually had a thin notebook cover (a rubashka, literally shirt) for the back and newsprint or poor quality writing paper for the face.

The games themselves were banned by the prison authorities and could be punished by up to six months in an isolation cell.

Therefore games were clandestine and often played at night, with a paid lookout to keep watch for nosy prison guards or possible informers.

The stakes for the game were agreed in advance and could be anything from tea, body parts, or the life of the player himself.

The games were rowdy and the dark conditions and smoky atmosphere, meant the cards were difficult to see.

Each player recorded their own scores and any disputes could be settled through a razbor, an investigation.

Debts were paid after playing and anyone reneging on a debt was referred to as a suka (b****).

If a debt could not be paid an opponent could be struck, or even knifed.

If the debtor is caught playing again, to person who he owes money to can confiscate winnings from that game, or even kill him.

The tattoos on an inmates body would often convey the relevant punishments or successes in games.

For example a thief with clubs or diamonds playing cards tattooed on his hands was a skilled card sharp, while a man tattooed with a couple copulating would have refused to pay his debts. 

Russian Criminal Tattoos and Playing Cards is published by FUEL   

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