Are tattoos the anchor that holds together the culture in Russian prisons?
When talking about culture and society, what we usually have in mind is what is happening in the reality around us, in the “free world” where citizens exercise their rights to free will and self- expression.
Our individual perception however, can only scratch the surface of the ways in which culture germs, develops and changes in different environments. As by definition it is a system of symbolic forms through which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their attitudes toward life, we often unconsciously restrict it only to the world we know and live in. If culture is indeed, as Clifford Geertz argues, the webs of significance the human being has spun around himself, than it must also be a reflection of the human perception of the environment he has been placed in. Our grasp of the world though, covers only a fraction of the realities that exist under its surface.
A great amount of literature and art work has been concerned with the question of what happens when people are extracted from the familiar “free world” and are placed in a closed environment, where rules are different and where the world itself seems different. The answer? New culture and new rules, as with every society comes the need for regulation. From this perspective, prison life could be seen as a peculiar case of artificially created order that predisposes the development of a culture, based on the knowledge and experience of the outside world, whose moral boundaries have been crossed, but rebuild, bent and adapted to the new environment of the prison. There are unspoken rules, hierarchy and moral limits. There’s the dream of the outside world. And then there’s the realization that the “world in there” is a taboo for the “world out there”.
Most of what we imagine when we hear “Russian prison” is constructed by the fictional representations we’ve seen in movies or read about in novels, in addition to which we inevitably project our knowledge of the historic horrors we’ve grown up learning about. In our collective consciousness Russian prisons exist as an alternative reality, which we fear as it is somehow a reflection of everything we fear in human nature. I’ll go out on a limb here and assume you’ve seen Stranger Things (If you haven’t, you should) and make the reference – Russian prisons are to our familiar “free world” what The Upside Down is to the fictional world in the series. The culture in there may be a taboo for the outside, but the culture outside is what it feeds with.
If we accept the idea that for a culture to flourish there, it has to be based on what is familiar from the real world, then tattoos should be the anchor that holds Russian prison culture together as it connects the experience out there to the experience in there. Tattoos are the symbolic connection to the outside, a statement explaining which boundaries have been crossed in order to get to the prison reality, a significant change an individual has experienced in prison or sometimes even the hope to be reestablished in the real world. Whatever connection to the real world they signify however, it is sacred and essential for the identity construction in the prison setting. Tattooing a symbol that signifies an uncommitted crime is punishable by either burning/cutting off the inked skin, or by death, depending on the level of falsity.
Here are some decoded designs of Russian criminal tattoos that I dug up from the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Volume 2 which you can purchase here.
The cat is a symbol of a successful thief and of a connection to the criminal world forever. Tattooed on the forearm or on the shoulder it signifies “native occupant of prison” and on the legs “convicted for robbery” or “convicted for life”. There are many designs of cat tattoos that are worn by both male and female convicts.
The acronym, which spells the Russian word for “whirlpool”, stands for “It is hard to leave me”. The woman with the snake winding around her symbolizes experience from an early age. It is a tattoo of a passive homosexual, worn on the back and sometimes applied by force.
The Latin text reads “Man is wolf to man”. The Greek text below reads “Know yourself”. It is a thief emblem tattoo from the 1960s.
The text reads “Dig deep, throw further, farting steam. 1931- 33. White Sea- Baltic Canal”. The canal was commissioned by Stalin to be constructed entirely from GULAG labour. The work on it lasted for twenty months, costing the lives of over two hundred thousand political criminal prisoners. The man who was wearing this tattoo was found frozen to death on the bank of the Vvedensky Canal.
“Yorsh” – a Russian word, meaning a mixture of beer and vodka. It is used to indicate a former criminal authority who has attempted to exercise power in a territory where he is not known. It is a forcibly applied tattoo, widespread in camps of the GULAG, GUITL, GUMZ and GUITU.
The text reads “Let them hate us, as long as they are afraid”. A German memento tattoo memorializing the “submarine war” against England in World War 2. The man who wore it served as a torpedo operator on a U-boat.