Symbols of a Life of Crime: Russia Gangland Tattoos

They are the fading symbols of a life dedicated to bloodshed, violence and the unspoken moral code of Russia’s 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.

These haunting images were taken in the early 1990s by photographer Sergei Vasiliev after he gained access to some of Russia’s toughest prisons at the peak of the gang wars that followed the break up of the Soviet Union.

This photograph (left) was taken in the Special Commandant’s office shortly before the end of the convict’s sentence. The roaring tiger is a symbol of the thief’s aggression, known as an oskal (bared teeth). It is common among convicts who are hostile to the authorities. (Right) The dagger through the neck shows that the prisoner committed murder while in prison, and that he is available to ‘hire’ for further murders. The bells on the feet indicate that he served his time in full (‘to the bell’), the manacles on the ankles mean that the sentences were over five years.



A group of convicts imprisoned for drug-related crimes. Convict (left) on both arms: ‘I live in sin / I die laughing’. Images of demons and monsters are intended to intimidate other inmates and give significance to the bearer within his circle. Convict (centre) German text below the neck: ‘God with us’; on the left arm: ‘Hurry up and live’. The sailing ship on the forearm signifies a lust for freedom and that the bearer is a potential escapee. Convict (right) on upper arm: ‘Keep love’; on forearm: ‘KRAB’: Klyanus Rezat Aktivistov i Blyadey (I swear to kill activists and sluts). The rose on the shoulder means that the bearer turned eighteen in prison.

The men in the photos are all gang members, locked up for a variety of crimes including theft, racketeering and murder.

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.

Similarly, the number of barbs on barbed wire denotes the years in a sentence, a broken manacle means the wearer has broken out of prison, a star on the knee means he refuses to kneel to police.

Tattoos on the eyelids were particularly respected because they were made by inserting a metal spoon under the lid so the ‘needle’ did not penetrate the eye.



An authoritative, ‘legitimate’ thief. The tattoo on the chest is a portrait tattoo of a loved one, the text in the clouds left and right reads ‘Curse you Communists / for my wasted youth’. Text above reads ‘Give me freedom / I will become more honest’.


The prisoner on the left’s tattoos display his anger and bitterness towards Communist power; the tattoos on the face signify that he never expects to go free. The inmate on the right was convicted for drug related crimes. ‘Gott mit uns’: ‘God with us’ was a rallying cry of both the Russian empire and the Third Reich. The Nazi Iron Cross expresses ‘I don’t care about anybody’.


The epaulette and the spider on the shoulders denote a high-ranking criminal. The text across the chest reads: ‘O Lord, forgive me for the tears of my mother’. (Right) Text across the chest reads ‘As long as I breathe, I hope’. The turbaned man clutching a knife in his mouth indicates an inclination to brutality, sadism, and a negative attitude toward activists – prisoners who openly collaborate with prison authorities.


A high-ranking, authoritative thief (left). In the early 1950s, it became customary for thieves to tattoo dots or small crosses on the knuckles, the number of dots indicating the number of terms. Prison is this thief’s home, he is of the highest rank in the thieves’ social hierarchy. His ring tattoos show that he was the only underage detainee in his circle of thieves, and that he is an ‘anti-social’: an inveterate transgressor of the prison regime, who completely refuses to work.


(Left) This convict’s tattoos were applied in the camps of the Urals where the tattoo artists produce work of exceptional quality. Because they were so held in such high regard, criminals often attempted to be transferred there in order to be tattooed. Mikhail Kovanev (right), poet, artist and musician, was serving a sentence of fifteen years for murder. He claimed he was innocent of this charge. Every part of his body was covered with tattoos, many of his own design. The eyes on the stomach mean that he was a homosexual (the penis makes the ‘nose’ of the face). In the colony he became a drug addict and was subsequently killed.



The epaulette tattooed on the shoulder, the thieves’ stars and religious tattoos on the chest all denote this thief’s high rank. The skull in the centre of the epaulette can be deciphered as: ‘I am not and will never be a slave, no one can force me to work’. ‘YK’ indicates the bearer has been through the ‘Intensive Colony’.


Different prisons also had different styles to show the gangster’s route through the jail system while ominous phrases were also popular, such as ‘my conscience is clean among my friends’ and ‘no salvation, no happiness’.

There are also a variety of tattoos that signify the wearers rank on the gangland hierarchy, detailing all of his achievements and failures, his promotions and demotions, his ‘secondments’ to jail and his ‘transfers’ to different types of ‘work’.

And punishments for getting a tattoo that you have not earned could be severe.

At best, it would be removed with sandpaper, glass, a brick or a razor. If he refused the offender would be raped or killed.

Damon Murray, publisher of a three-book series called Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia in which the images appear, said: ‘Because of this hard line, the tattoos themselves carried huge integrity, they were more important than anything else for a criminal.

‘If you were able to unlock the code, then you could read that criminals history, it was difficult to hide from your past.

‘Tattoos were also forcibly applied by criminals as a method of punishment, for losing at cards and so on, to ‘lower’ their status.

‘Practically all the tattoos that might appear to us as ‘erotic’ fall into this category; far from being exciting, the only emotion this type of tattoo would stir in an inmate is fear.’

Vasiliev was a policeman before quitting the job to follow his true passion of photography. But it was because of his law enforcing past that he managed to persuade guards to grant him access to prisons and reform settlements across Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, Perm and St Petersburg.
But it was his charm and guile that helped him persuade the inmates to remove their clothes and pose for his camera.

The early 1990s saw some of the worst gangland violence Russia has ever seen.

As the former Soviet Union was being carved up politically, a string of ruthless power struggles broke out between opposing Mafia kingpins.
Mr Murray added: ‘These people were some of Russia’s most dangerous and they trod a very thin line between life and death.
‘Indeed, because of their lifestyles, most of these men and women are unlikely to be alive today.’

The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volumes I to III is published by Fuel.

The images are being displayed as part of the ‘Gaiety Is The Most Outstanding Feature Of The Soviet Union exhibition’ at the Saatchi Gallery until 5th May 2013.