How much can you know about a person solely by seeing their tattoos Inkluded contributor Sam Berry was dying to explore the symbology and culture of Russian criminal tattoos.Can you tell what someone does for a living just by looking at the designs on their skin? Who they socialise with? Where they have travelled? Probably not. If you’re very lucky they may have something that stands out which gives you a teasing hint at the answer to maybe one of those questions, but you’d probably be making an educated guess at best.

Personally, I’d say this was a good thing. It’s one of the things that make tattoos and their designs so interesting, so intriguing and so unique to the wearer. We see a tattoo and it piques our interest, but the only real way to find out the true meaning or message behind it is to ask or know the wearer. They are an extension of our individuality and can often be very personal ways of expressing ourselves and, to a certain extent, enable us to stand out from the crowd.

The one place you could “read” someone else’s tattoos, without a word being said, would be in the criminal underworld of Russia, the Vory V Zakone; The Thieves Guild.What has more commonly become known as The Russian Mafia started life as the Vory V Zakone, which closely translates as “thief who follows the law”, figuratively referring to a criminal who obeys the thieves code. These are men who, in the mid 40s through to the mid 80s, served sentences in the Gulags of the old Soviet Union and so formed a ‘Guild of Thieves’, vowing to hinder the authorities and the Russian government as much as possible, whilst following the strict code of conduct they set for themselves.

Within “the zone” (how the Vory refer to prison), these criminals have developed a very intricate and hauntingly beautiful way of chronicling their deeds that make it relatively quick and easy to judge a man’s character the instant you lay eyes on him… through their tattoos.As tattooing is banned in prison, they have to make do with the tools available to them to carry out this practice. The dye is made from a mixture of scorched rubber and urine and the tattoo is applied using a length of sharpened wire and an electric shaver. Cases of gangrene and tetanus, as you might expect, are incredibly high.

Each tattoo design and placement instantly tells an onlooker a small piece of information about the wearer. As an example a common tattoo is that of a cat, which is the mark of a professional thief; one cat and the wearer works alone, two cats and he works as part of a larger team. If a man has a tattoo of a naked woman burning on a cross, it symbolises he was convicted for the murder of a woman, the number of logs on the fire denotes the length in years of his sentence.As one might expect, the further up the Vory hierarchy you go, the more tattoos you carry. It is estimated that in the maximum security prisons, upwards of 95% of prisoners have tattoos that follow the Vory code.

Religious symbols are incredibly common, such as images of the Madonna and Child, crosses and churches. In the context of the Soviet prison system, these tattoos have very little to do with religious beliefs – their real meanings are rooted in prison and criminal traditions. Probably the most recognisable of these are the large church back pieces which are interpreted by counting the number of domes atop the spires; each dome representing an individual conviction, the design on the spire telling the reader in which prison the conviction was spent. If the criminal served his entire sentence then the dome will be topped by a cross.

For the times when the majority of their tattoos are covered by clothes, the Vory also have a similar system for hand tattoos. They take the form of small marks and rings which quickly broadcast the desired information. A circled “A” in the form of a ring shows that the wearer is an anarchist for example and the number of small crosses on each hand indicates the number of convictions the wearer has.

The tattoos that these men carry become the most respected and feared thing in prison society; far more than being simply personal, they carry a weight of meaning and are an indelible law in a society beyond conventional law.This short piece barely scratches the surface of the Vory and their tattoos. If you wish to find out more I highly recommend reading Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files, one of the largest collections of prison tattoo photographs that’s been published to date.

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