Illegal ink: reading meaning in criminal tattoos

Until fashions changed in recent decades, a tattoo was widely considered the mark of the soldier, the sailor or the criminal. The tattoos of offenders have sparked particular interest as they can be highly symbolic coded messages that have been thought to be a glimpse into the psychology of the criminal underworld.

The interest in ‘criminal ink’ stretches back to the 19th century when Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso started collecting pictures of tattoos from captured or murdered Mafiosos.

Lombroso believed that persistent offenders were biologically defective who reflected an ‘atavistic‘ throwback to a primitive stage of human development.

He further believed that criminal tendencies could be seen in the shape of the face, skull and body, and could be divined by studying tattoos, which were a reflection of the “fierce and obscene hearts of these unfortunates”.

While Lombroso’s ideas on criminality and the body proved to be little more than prejudice and conclusions drawn from poorly guided research (he failed to compare how often the same traits appear in non-criminals) the idea that criminal tattoos were a sort of ‘symbolic code’ proved to be closer to the mark.

Russian prison tattoos from the Soviet era are some of the most complex of these symbolic codes and determine an offender’s place within the strictly organised and brutally enforced criminal social order.

Russian prison guard Danzig Baldaev collected pictures of these tattoos for over 40 years, mostly during the period of Soviet-run gulags, and carefully documented the images and their meanings.

He published a Russian book on the tattoos in 2001 and later his work was re-published in English in two volumes of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia.

Racist, graphically pornographic and violent images are common but apparently accurately reflect the vicious and oppressive nature of the prison camps. Others are political, some romantic, and many a combination of a number of these themes.

The images are satirical, offensive and disturbing both in their explicit content and their implicit meaning. While some are ‘earned’, others are forcibly applied and intended as punishments.

The tattoos are intended to reflect the life, status and experiences of the prisoner, and most importantly, they allow others to ‘read’ the person in the most literal sense.

The Russian criminal tattoo is a means of secret communication, an esoteric language of representational images which the thief’s body uses to inform the world of thieves about itself. This language resembles thieves’ argot and it performs a similar function – encoding secret thieves’ information to protect it from outsiders (fraera). In exactly the same way as argot endows standard, neutral words with ‘strictly professional’ meanings, the tattoo also conveys ‘secret’ symbolic knowledge through the use of ordinary allegorical images which at first glance seem familiar to everyone. Even the tattoo ‘Heil Hitler!’, when applied to the body of a Russian ‘legitimate thief’ (vor v zakone) may have absolutely nothing to do with Hitler or National Socialism in general. As a rule it is a sign of a thief’s attitude of denial (otritsalovka) or the symbol of a refusal to submit to the prison and camp administration and also, in a broader sense, a total refusal to cooperate in any way with the Soviet authorities. (p33, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Vol II).

In effect, these tattoos embody a thief’s complete ‘service record’, his entire biography. They detail all of his achievements and failures, his promotions and demotions, his ‘secondments’ to jail and his ‘transfers’ to different types of work. A thief’s tattoos are his ‘passport’, ‘case file’, ‘awards record’, ‘diplomas’ and ‘epitaphs’. In other words, his full set of official bureaucratic documents… Tattoos acts as symbols of public identity, social self-awareness and collective memory. They shape stereotypes of group behaviour and set out the rules and rituals necessary for maintaining order in the world of thieves. (p27, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Vol I).

The symbols are extensive and complicated, and owing to their importance, the penalty for faking an unearned tattoo could be a swift and brutal death.

There is a grim irony in the fact that many in the Russian criminal underworld saw themselves as rebelling against the Soviet system while creating a subculture which was more oppressive and almost as bureaucratic. I suspect, however, the irony was lost on many.

The tattoos from the Soviet gulags are not the sole examples, of course. Many criminal gangs use tattoos as a pledge of allegiance and a record of past experience, to the point where Mara Salvatrucha gang members are now trying to avoid getting their distinctive tattoos so the authorities can’t identify and ‘read’ them so easily.

Link to NSFW info/images from Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia I.
Link to NSFW info/images from Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia II.
Link to SFW images from the same collection.
pdf of good essay on Cesare Lombroso, his theories and influence.

2 thoughts on “Illegal ink: reading meaning in criminal tattoos”

  1. There’s a long history of tattoo use in underworld gangs. The Yakuza in Japan have used extensive tattoos to identify their members for centuries. Older Japanese tend to look down on any sort of body art because of the sinister associations of tattooing.

  2. Body scarification is as old as human beings. Body scarification, tattoos, piercing… are social cues that identified the individual who dysplay them whithin the tribe, clan or social group, and form part of a rich milieu of rituals, rules and cultural codes. I have to say that i have some tattos.
    One evolutionary exlanation, akin to signal theory in biology, favors that depending on the part of the body in which they are, they signal the immunological resistance of that very part of the body to pathogens.

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