We Dive East
Updated: Apr 7
Welcome back, comrades of Speakeasy Tattoo! How is everyone doing? Another windy week has blown by here at the shop. New plants have been planted. New succulents have been ....sucked? Anyway, here we are. As mentioned last week, we are sticking with the eastern theme. Eastern promises, if you will (I think I'm clever).
This week we head west from Japan into the heart of Russia. As with a lot of the Irezumi traditions we have discussed over the past few weeks, much of what one associates with Russian tattooing comes from the criminal underworld.
As with any culture, crime existed throughout history in Russia, but it was in the post-Revolution era of the 1920s and 30s that Russian organized crime really came into its own.
Much like their western counterparts, Russian criminal organizations followed strict structures and ranking. A caste system developed such of bosses and "thieves.", and with that a tattoo culture to define rank and reputation. Up until World War II, any tattoo could represent a professional criminal, the only exception being tattoos on sailors.
Being under the Gulag system, some laws which were implemented in the middle 1940s permitted short prison sentences to be given to those that were convicted of petty theft, labor discipline infractions, or even hooliganism. This led to increasing the prison population at the time after the Second World War.
A thief’s tattoos represents his “suit” (mast), which was his standing within the community of thieves and who had command other one another. All with coded meanings and could basically be a criminal's personal bio. Usually they could also indicate a thief's familial affiliation. Getting caught with wearing one of the tattoos of a “legitimate thief” without the bone fides to back it up could be punished by death or, if the prisoner is "lucky," would be forced to remove the tattoos themselves with less than sanitary or humane means. I suppose I should note that no, Russian prisoners didn't have access to laser removal systems.
In the post-war era, Nikita Khrushchev took an even more draconian approach to crime to the already brutal Soviet criminal justice system. Torture was not only legal but common-place. In turn, the "legitimate thieves" stepped up their brutality to match suit. Simple removal of an unearned tattoo was no longer an option. Rape and murder were usually the ultimate conclusion to the offender. Over the decades the escalation of violence within the Thieves caste system was so widespread and horrific that the leaders actually stepped in to quell the in-fighting. By 1970, fights were outlawed and disagreements had to be handled by leadership. Further, the fashionable nature of the criminal tattoos had spread out of control among younger inmates, making unearned tattoos difficult to police by leadership and along with the overall move to reduce violence, illegitimate tattoos were, in a sense, legalized amongst the criminals. By 1985, modern electric tattooing was becoming more and more possible in Russian society outside of the prison system, further diluting the once powerful and frightening association with these tattoos.
Like their western counterparts, Russian prison tattoos are almost exclusively black and grey iconography. Subject matter is wide ranging from Orthodox religious imagery to crude pornographic characters. While naturally execution varies from artist to artist, there was a definite style that took hold that is easily recognizable today; similar in aesthetic to American Traditional with an Orthodox Russian vibe to it.
One of the most shocking and surprisingly common themes is Nazi imagery. Seems anachronistic for Russians to so freely toss Nazi imagery around when one cosiders few people as a whole know the brutality of the Nazis directly than the people of Russia. In actuality, this imagery acts as a defiance of authority, not a belief in Nazism.
Other, more common imagery such as roses and skulls are commonplace but also hold significant meaning and can even be used in various combinations to convey different meanings.
Check out this dude. He wears his tattoos in almost a textbook fashion. A snake around the neck is a sign of drug addiction. Take special note of his shoulders as these are some of the most important tattoos he wears. The stars on the clavicles and epaulettes on the shoulders show that this inmate is a criminal authority. The Madonna and child is one of the most popular tattoos worn by criminals — there can be a number of meanings. It can symbolise loyalty to a criminal clan; it can mean the wearer believes the Mother of God will ward off evil; or it can indicate the wearer has been behind bars from an early age.
The example below of various finger "ring" tattoos shows just how complex the codes and go and how entire books have been dedicated to the subject. Far beyond the scope of this blog.
Today, while in the Russian prison system they still hold special meaning, the style and iconography of these tattoos has spread across the globe and most meaning has been diluted or even lost on people who get these tattoos today. Model Alysha Nett wears the high-ranking epaulettes of a criminal leader. One of the greatest (if not THE greatest) drag queens, Katya Zamolodchikova wears a number of classic prison symbols. And who can blame them? These are striking and unique images. Would you get one? Do you plan on any trips to Volgograd? Do you have long-sleeved shirts?
On that note, I think that is enough of your time this week. We are currently booking for Summer so get your submission while there is still time! Cases of COVID are down 70% but let's not get complacent! We are almost out of the woods but we aren't there yet! So keep safe, y'all!
Enjoy your weekend,
-Baron Sweeverton von Killjoy the 1st