Telltale Tattoos in Russian Prisons

Natural History, November 1993 | Go to article overview

Telltale Tattoos in Russian Prisons


No one has ever counted the number of prisoners with body tattoos in the Commonwealth of Independent States, as the loose association of eleven of the former Soviet Republics is known. The Corrective Labor Administration remains silent on the issue because to admit that 70 to 98 percent of the prison population flout prohibitions against tattoos would be an admission of how badly the system is functioning.

Since the introduction of glasnost, however, the press has published some stunning figures; from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, thirty-five million people were incarcerated. Few other nations in the world have had such a large prison population, and according to the most conservative estimates, twenty-eight to thirty million of the Russian inmates were tattooed.

Who are these people? What are their motives for going through the acute pain of getting their bodies covered in tattoos? A criminologist by training, I first started studying tattoos thirty years ago as a means of identifying the corpses of criminals. Very soon I began to suspect that tattoos matched crimes in some way.

Over the years, I visited correctional facilities and and labor camps in the regions of Perm, Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Kirov, and Sakhalin, and in the autonomous republics of Udmurt, Mari, Tatar, and Komi, where I interviewed and photographed tattooed prisoners. They posed willingly for the camera and spoke with pride about their tattoos. My collection now numbers more than 20,000 photographs, including 1,000 of women.

Tattooing methods in prisons are primitive and painful. The convict often makes the tattoo himself, and the process can take several years to complete. A single small figure, for example, can be created in four to six hours of uninterrupted work. The instrument of choice is a reconstructed electric shaver to which prisoners add needles and an ampule with liquid dye. Scorched rubber that has been mixed with urine is used for dye. Dubious sanitation creates serious health complications, including gangrene and tetanus, but the most common problem is lymphadenitis, an inflammation of the lymph nodes accompanied by fever and chills.

In most cases, inmates said they started wearing tattoos only after they had committed a crime. As convictions increase and the terms of incarceration become more severe, the tattoos multiply. In minimum-security prisons, for example, 65 to 70 percent of the convicts wear tattoos; that figure increases to 80 percent in medium-security prisons, and to between 95 and 98 percent in maximum-security facilities. Female convicts are less likely to wear tattoos, although like men, they are more likely to be tattooed in maximum-security prisons. In the female correctional facility near the town of Kungur in the Perm region--about 700 miles northeast of Moscow--I found only 201 out of 962 were tattooed, but up to 40 percent were tattooed in the high-security prison. As a rule, white-collar criminals do not wear tattoos. Nor are tattoos found among prisoners serving sentences for political crimes.

According to an unwritten law among criminals, a convict without tattoos is looked down on. Such people stand out like white sheep in a black herd. The immediate reaction of newcomers to a camp when they first see the tattooed prisoners is respect and a certain fear, as well as an understanding of the tattooed prisoners' seniority. The tattoos that a convict wears give him material and psychological advantages inside prison.

At the top of the pyramid are the pakhans, or "ringleaders." Below them are the ones who carry out the leaders' orders, variously known as authorities, enforcers, fighters, or soldiers. Next come the "men," the hard laborers who are capable of standing up for themselves. Finally, in the lowest category, are the outcasts, or untouchables, the ones who have been broken in prison, beaten, and whipped.

A prisoner's place in the hierarchy of the criminal world depends on his experience as a criminal, his professionalism, his knowledge of the customs, traditions, and unwritten laws of the criminal world. …

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