Tattoo Culture in the Russian Prisons, Research Paper Example
Words: 3398Research Paper
In the history of human civilization, various symbols and means had different meaning depending on the context and socio-cultural conditions of their perception. With each epoch and cultural specifics, various manifestations of individuality and self-expression were gaining different meanings and interpretations. The case of tattoos is not an exception. In various ethnic cultures, the same images of tattoos can have different meanings, with further diversification of sub-cultures meaning can change and can be related to a certain functionality of an individual in this or that sub-culture. In other words, a tattoo can become visiting card of a person wearing it, demonstrating his belonging to a certain category within a sub-culture. This is particularly the case of tattoos in the Russian prisons. The aim of this paper is research the culture of criminal tattoos in Russia. In other words, the paper explores how tattoos are means of expressing the trends in the Russian prison culture and their meaning.
Overview of tattoos significance
The phenomenon of tattoos is not new to the Russian prison system, yet its functionality and meaning had changed. During the Imperial Russia, at the end of 19th – beginning of 20th century, tattoos were used by Tsar’s policemen to put tattoos on prisoners in order to indicate their crimes (Varese 519). Gradually, the inmates began to make tattoos themselves. In this regard, the primary functionality of tattoos as being means of showing one’s criminal record remained, yet it became much more than the symbol of the reason for which the inmate was imprisoned (Lambert 61). Starting from 1930 up to 1950 the overall system of tattoos meaning and categorization within Russian prisons was established. With slight detailing an addition of certain details and geographical distinctions in each prison, meaning and its correspondence to the rank in prison cultures remained unchanged (Varese 518).
From an ordinary cause of one’s imprisonment, tattoos became a reflection of one’s criminal records, previous roles during imprisonment, personality traits and also potential roles and rank belonging during the on-going imprisonment (Cheloukhine and Hebrfeld 76). In this regard, the primary purpose of tattoo is to demonstrate the belonging of an individual to the prison culture or the lack of such. In other words, those new inmates that come to prison for the first time, they have no relation to the existing system of prison culture in Russia. Through the trail of the new inmates, they are categories to which rank they will belong. However, initially they will act as the lowest rank of performers – doing small jobs for the upper ranks (Serio 46).
Usually, they will not be allowed to make any tattoos in the beginning. Only after they show themselves, they are allowed to make tattoos; this demonstrates their acceptance within the prisoners’ community. In this regard, withstanding the pain of making tattoo shows one courage and ability to survive the hardships of prison and its system, which means that an inmate belongs to this system (Lambert 93). Thus, from the cultural perspective, just as in Maori and Polynesian oriental cultures, making a tattoo corresponds to the act of initiation and acceptance to the masculine brotherhood withstanding the pain of tattoo making. On the other hand, the difference is that in prison culture it is not the belonging to brotherhood that is manifested by tattoo, but rather becoming part of the system, which gives tattoo more instrumentalist function rather than spiritual and uniting like in the case of Maori tribes (Arp 80).
Furthermore, the instrumentalist function of prison tattoos increases. The longer the inmate stays in prison, the more tattoos he gets – the more details his prison and personal profile reflects on his body (Phelan and Hunt 287). In terms of the prison environment, tattoos speak for their owners and demonstrate their rank and functions they fulfill in a prison system. Because tattoos serve a crucial role in ranks and roles stratification, undeserved wearing of tattoos indicating higher-rank belonging or pretended attributes is severely punished by the long-term prisoners and those who belong to the core of the prison culture. In this regard, these tattoos will be removed by force and inmates punished by beating up, rape, mutilation and even death (Serio 48). Such measures applied to the violation of tattoos code demonstrate the significance of them in prison culture as means of order preservation and ranks categorization.
Moreover, this significance is shown in terms of the newcomers who might have tattoos identical to prison ones but who do not know their meaning. During the first encounter, the new-comers are interrogated about their prison history, if none is found they are punished for having these tattoos irrespective of the fact they were made outside prison (Moran 567). Thus, the prison tattoo is not just a symbol of one’s belonging to prison culture but also the rank and functionality one has in that system. These ranks and functions are gained by time and lots of suffering of inmates that is why when someone makes them undeserved the punishment is so severe.
The process of making tattoos
Another reason why tattoos symbolize the belonging into prison culture and the greater number of them shows the rank and greater respect is related to the trial of pain and one’s strength in the process of its making (Lambert 74). Since, in prison, there are no ideal tools for making tattoos and the sanitary conditions are far from ideal, there were occasions of infections and gangrene that resulted even in amputation. Thus, the inmates that have numerous tattoos symbolize strong will, ability to withstand pain and survivability since they did not only managed to overcome all potential infections but lived long enough in prison to make all of these tattoos and gain their rank (Cheloukhine and Hebrfeld 75).
From the technological point of view ways of making tattoos varied depending on the availability of materials and tools. Most of the prison tattoos have a bluish color because the traditional material used was pen ink or ink prepared from soot, sugar and urine. Later the primary material became Chinese ink which is smuggled by the jailers (Shoham 44). The tools varied from matches with tied needles on their end to medical needles and syringes, which could filled in with ink. Later, the most advanced tools became an electric shaver (Lambert 63). The medium-level specialist were making an initial stencil of the future tattoo and then began the “acupuncture” of tattooing, while more advanced specialists were doing it right away (Arp 86).
In case the position of an inmate in prison changed or tattoos did not correspond to one’s background they were removed through a painful process of using magnesium which burned the skin and left the marks from a burn. Thus, this way or the other the inmate could not forget his previous place and role – the burn mark served as a reminder (Serio 47). Tattoos also showed that rank in the prison society because they were not free of charge. In order to afford a tattoo, an inmate had to earn the right, male the right connections and gain certain goods to exchange for the tattoo work (Phelan and Hunt 281).
The meaning of various tattoos and their locations
Although in prison culture tattoos have different purposes and meanings, the primary is to show one’s rank. In this regard, the top rank in the Russian prisons is “vor v zakone” meaning the “thief in law” (Varese 521). It is shown through the totality of various tattoos, but the most distinctive ones are multi-angle stars that are located symmetrically on the shoulder below collar bones. They are also known as a “rose of winds,” which was initially the symbol of mariners and wonderers and in the prison gained the meaning of cruelty and defiance of prisoner elite (Varese 518). While located on shoulders it demonstrated the belonging to prisoner authorities, placed on the knees it means defiance and reluctance to kneel before the government, police and jailers (Shoham 39).
Another high-rank tattoo is located on the back; it shows a Russian-style church with different number of cupolas. The number of cupolas corresponds to the number of imprisonments served in full, and the number of windows shows the number of years served within each imprisonment (Moran 566). The picture varied by regions. For instance, inmates in famous Solovky prisons in Siberia had churches styled to their architectural style and had no crosses above cupolas. They were also depicted with multiple sculls at their foundation, which symbolized suffering and death of victims (Cheloukhine and Hebrfeld 87). Different variations of crucifixions and cross surrounded by blackthorn were other symbols showing one’s belonging to prisoner authorities. Tattoos of big crucifixions were often placed in the middle of one’s chest, smaller versions or crosses could be on the shoulders and arms (Serio 41).
Another tattoo that is often made on one’s back together with churches is the depiction of Church bells, which demonstrate that the inmates served all his imprisonments in full – from the first ring of the bell to the last (Arp 88). Tattoo demonstrating one’s merits and advancement from the mid-rank is the image of epaulettes and shoulder straps. They mean that the inmate did something to achieve their higher rank and can claim merits for those actions. The high-rank prisoners prefer to make them in order to establish and confirm their authority both in practice and on their bodies (Cheloukhine and Hebrfeld 53).
In terms of inmates’ functionality within prisoner system, various tattoos showed their criminal background and what they are eager and want to do in this environment. The tattoo of a bat means that the owner was a night thief. Daggers on various parts of the body with different elements suggest that the inmate was imprisoned for violent attack resulting in death. For instance, a dagger in a neck means that the inmate slashed somebody’s throat. Dagger with blood drops on one’s chest or arm suggest that the inmate killed someone, and the number of drops indicated the number of victims (Varese 520). Dagger also means that this inmate can take killer jobs in prison (Lambert 37). On the other hand, in terms of personal storytelling, dagger and a rose entwined mean blood shed for betrayal, while a rose on its own and with blackthorns symbolizes a ruined youth. A locked dagger or a dagger in scabbards or chains means that the kill was conducted in prison (Cheloukhine and Hebrfeld 87).
The tattoo of a bear means “medvezatnik” which in the Russian prisoners’ slang means a professional safecracker. The tattoo of a mermaid with an anchor symbolizes sexual assaults and lustful actions against women; it is often placed on one’s chest or back (Shoham 39). The tattoo of joker symbolizes gamblers, while three playing cards hit by an arrow are the sign of card tricksters (Serio 52). The cat means that the inmate is a recidivist and just as cats are known for their fidelity and honor of home so are recidivists stating that they consider prison being their home. The crucifixion with a woman burning on it suggests that the inmate is imprisoned for murdering a woman. The tattoo of a Nation American Chief was often made by political prisoners’ dissidents symbolizing the inmate’s deprivation of his citizen rights (Lambert 56). Regarding the drug addiction, it was often shown by tattoos with spider nets and also snakes around one’s neck (Cheloukhine and Hebrfeld 104).
Although in various cases, the location of the tattoo might vary without a change of its significance and is due to inmates preferences and location of other tattoos, in some cases the location can change the meaning entirely. This is particularly the case of the tattoo of eyes which is related to the sexual activity among prisoners. In this regard, if eyes are located on one’s chest, they mean that the inmate is looking for other inmates to have a sexual intercourse (Moran 568). On the other hand, if located on the lower belly, it means that the inmate is homosexual, which suggests a willing sexual intercourse. In case when eyes are tattooed on inmates’ buttocks, then it means that the inmate belongs to the lowest rank in prison “whores” or “bitches”– the inmates who sexually satisfy other prisoners (Moran 565).
Tattoos on knuckles
Another distinctive category of tattoos is those on knuckles. Unlike the tattoos on other body parts, they are smaller and more laconic in their composition. They are made in the shape of finger rings and usually contain symmetrical figures of playing cards symbols. In most of the cases, they require additional explanation unlike the rest of the tattoos. Their primary functionality is to demonstrate one’s position and criminal background right away, without the necessity of showing the rest of the body (Lambert 52). They serve as an initial warning for anyone interacting with a certain inmate. This type of tattoos tells more about inmates’ past.
The ring, with a square of the sun going down and chess board underneath, means that the inmate is from a criminal family. It is often accompanied by an abbreviation meanings “convents of a beloved father,” suggesting that the he follows his father’s criminal steps. The ring with half of sun and black triangle means that the inmate spent his childhood in juvenile correction facilities and detention camps (Phelan and Hunt 288). Entirely a black square means that the inmate served the full term and as released according to the court sentence without any parole. Black and white peak parts separated by slash usually stands for “maturity or adulthood met in prison” (Phelan and Hunt 279). The ring with hearts suit directed bottom right stands for pedophiles and sexual abusers with under-aged. The ring depicting hearts and clubs in royal suit staggered is a sign of authority. Bi-color ring with colors separated by a slash, with the white part having clubs suit means that the inmate “passed through the cross” which means the famous prison in St. Petersburg (Varese 525).
The ring showing the ace of hearts means the owner is rapist of underage victims. This type of tattoos like others indicating crimes of rape, pedophilia, the murder of children are made by force irrespective of inmates’ will. The main reason for making these tattoos against one’s will is because certain crimes are not tolerated in prison, and inmates are being punished by the others for their crimes. This is particularly the case for rapists and child molesters, whom are considered by high-rank and old-fashioned criminals to be below criminals and male dignity to act in this way (Cheloukhine and Hebrfeld 64). In other words, this is one of the examples of the notions that prevail in prisoners’ culture and their reflection on one’s body through a tattoo.
Personality trait tattoos
Another category of prison tattoos refers to the demonstration of one’s features of character and perception of the very imprisonment and life in general. These tattoos are helpful for the inmates to realize with whom they are dealing and judge the situation accordingly. For these purposes, tattoos of animals are the most popular. In this regard, the head of a tiger on one’s chest over the heart means that the inmate is full of fury, short-tempered. The head of bull or two fighting bulls suggests that the inmate likes getting involved in fights and that he also is interested in participating in staged fights. This tattoo is often placed on two breasts (Arp 86). The image of a wolf means one’s love for liberty, walking his road. The raven means that the thief is born of hatred.
Another distinctive tattoo is of the devil with a grin on his face. It is often placed on one’s collar bones or shoulders. The primary meaning of this tattoo is defiance and the lack of respect for any laws or authorities and governmental legal system in general (Serio 73). In terms of political context, early works could demonstrate faces of Lenin, Stalin and Hitler demonstrating one’s political preferences or as a symbol for the communists not to shoot in the faces of the former leaders. This type of tattoo was considered to serve self-preservation purposes in 1940-1950s, when shooting of prisoners in Siberian prisons were very common (Lambert 49).
Of particular significance are tattoos that reflect Nazi symbols. Although their meaning in the world of tattoos outside prison means that the person is supporting Nazi and is either a skinhead or a fascist, in the Russian prison, these tattoos have a slightly different meaning. While they can also signify one’s support of Nazi, they mean the inmates rebellion against any system of control and rule over him (Moran 567). In this regard, he opposes himself to jailers, government and society that he blames for his crimes by using the most hated image in the world history – swastika. It is often located on one’s forearm or the left breast (Phelan and Hunt 281).
Another essential feature of personal prison tattoos is that many of them depict various religious themes and images. The most common one is the image of the Virgin Mary with a child, which symbolizes one’s lost innocence, hopes for protection by the saints and in some cases redemption (Lambert 48). These images are often placed on one’s chest. In this regard, the primary distinction is that inmates often blame the exciting authorities for their fate and not the God or saints (Shoham 36).
From all mentioned above, it can be concluded that tattoos in Russian culture are the means of reflecting that culture and its laws not only in inmates’ consciousness, but also on their bodies as crucial elements of that system and its fulfillment. In this regard, tattoos serve as means of communicating existing order in prisons, criminal ranks division and one’s criminal development according to these ranks. It also serves as means of dividing roles and their control trough the ink on one’s body. On the other hand, tattoos also help inmates to understand each other’s place in prison hierarchy without words or irrelevant conflicts. Tattoos speak for the inmates just as their crimes. Thus, tattoos in the Russian prison culture are the tools of its practical implementation and articulation to everyone involved.
From the socio-structural perspective, in the world of a cage the inmates live in, without tattoos indicating ranks and consequent authority, not even the resemblance of an order could be possible. If inmates had to tattoo order and system of control behind them, then the constant conflicts between newcomers and the old inmates would not be avoidable. The chaos in the place full of criminals is something no system of justice could control fully. Thus, the tattoo-based culture serves a better means of control of that environment than any legally impose norm could. This is explained by the ability of tattoos and their meanings to appeal to human primeval instincts and interpretations that are characteristic to all people and criminals in particular, since they live in the environment of survival which is similar to wildlife.
From the cultural perspective, prisoners’ tattoos are the practical manifestations of the existing culture in prison with its own rules and notions. Everything about prison tattoos speaks about the hardship of serving time in prison and how surviving this is possible through various challenges and advancement through different ranks. This path of survival or fail is depicted on one’s body. Thus, the tattoo culture in prison is a reflection of individual paths that create the overall system of control over human lives that ended up in one place. Moreover, for an individual, this tattoos culture gives a chance for further survival and target to chive in a seemingly hopeless place.
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