Russian Prison Tattoos

Greetings friends of Speakeasy Tattoo Los Angeles! This is Marléna here with another weekly edition of Speakeasy news and tattoo history. This week at the shop felt a little different, as it’s now getting dark at around 4:30pm. The long nights mean Scott’s painting game is at an all time high! James on the other hand has been making some beautiful tattoos on practice skin…I’m starting to think I should book an appointment with him to tatt me up with one of his demonic women! Check out his stuff here!

For this week’s bit of tattoo education, I am going to give a brief intro into the world of Russian prison tattoos. While I’m not an authority on the extremely nuanced topic, I am slightly Russian, which seems like as good an excuse as any. Aesthetically, Russian prison tattoos have an impressively free-form, illustrative quality to them. While the extremely specific and varied iconography may read as random to the untrained eye, the opposite is true, as the tattoos are correlate to specific crimes. There are specific images which denote the specific crime, anything from robbery, to murder.

The function of these tattoos, is equally intentional. The tattoos establish a readable visual hierarchy of inmates within the prison. The tattoos came to function as a visual language, readable only to fellow criminals. Those entering prison without tattoos were susceptible to being noticed for the lack of, which could put them in physical danger. Similarly, if you had tattoos that inaccurately represented the crimes you had committed, you were also viable to run into trouble with fellow inmates. Specific tattoos established rank, for example, a prisoner with a pair of eyes tattooed on him, would be a highly respected and powerful criminal within the social hierarchy.Arkady Bronnikov, is Russia’s leading expert on prison tattoo iconography, several years ago he released the largest photographic collection of Russian prison tattoos to date, in a book called Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files.

That’s all for this week! Thanks again for reading!

-M.M

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