A snake around the neck is a sign of drug addiction. 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, and there can be a number of meanings. It can symbolise loyalty to a criminal clan; it can mean that the wearer believes the Mother of God will ward off evil; as well as meaning that the wearer has been in the jail system and behind bars from an early age.
The tattoos on this inmate mimic those of higher ranking criminals and indicate the bearer has adopted a thieves mentality. However, he does not wear the ‘thieve’s stars’, he is not a ‘vor v zakone’ or ‘thief-in-law’, and therefore holds no real power among this caste.
Text across the knuckes reads ‘NADYA’ (womans name). The ‘ring’ on the forefinger stands for ‘Rely on no one but yourself’, a ‘patsan’ one of the most privileged inmates VTK. Middle finger ‘the thieves cross’ of a pickpocket. Third finger: ‘I served my time in full’, ‘From start to finish’, ‘Went without parole’, the prisoner served his complete sentence with no remission for working with the system. Little finger ‘The dark life’ the bearer spent a lot of time in a punishment cell. The skull and crossbones, gun, knife and letter ‘K’[iller] denote a murderer.
Text on the right wrist reads: ‘1975-1984 ITK’ (Ispravitelno Trudovaya Koloniya) ‘1975-1984 Correctional Labour Colony’, the rose above the dates denotes the bearer spent his youth in prison. The acronym on the left wrist reads: ‘STV’ (Severnaya Gruppa Voisk) ‘Northern Army Group’ applied during conscripted army service. This thief is tattooed in the traditional fashion with a large image (usually a church or a cross) taking up the most important part of the body: the chest. This is intended to show a devotion to the thieves traditions, and stand as proof that their body is not tainted by betrayal, that they are ‘clean’ before their fellow thieves. The number of cupolas on the church signifies the number of convictions (in this case six).
On his right leg is the acronym ‘SLON: S malih Let Odni Neschastya’ (Only Misfortunes from an Early Age). Text under this reads ‘Here is what [is killing us]’. The dagger, cards and money underneath are a variation of the popular tattoo ‘These are the things that destroy us’. Text at the top of the left leg reads ‘Few roads have been walked’. Text by the knee reads ‘Love’. Text on the shin reads ‘It [the leg] walks around the zone’. The theatre masks on the right leg represent happiness (before prison) and sadness (after prison).
On the arm beneath the skull is the Latin phrase Momento mori meaning ‘Remember that you will die’. The double-headed eagle is a Russian state symbol that dates back to the 15th century and was used by Peter the Great. In 1993, after the fall of Communism, it replaced the hammer and sickle as the coat of arms of the Russian Federation. This photograph taken in the Soviet period, shows this emblem tattooed as a bold symbol of power and rage against the USSR (see also page 218). It can also be interpreted as ‘Russia for the Russians’. The Statue of Liberty infers a longing for freedom, while the dark character holding a gun denotes a readyness to commit violence and murder. The eyes on the chest signify ‘I can see everything’ and ‘I am watching’, the powerful tattoo of a criminal ‘overseer’. The eight-pointed stars tattooed on the shoulders mark the bearer as an ‘authorative’ thief.