The most popular display of Russian Mafia Tattoos in a mainstream movie production would have to be on the body of Viggo Mortensen’s character in the David Cronenberg award winning film Eastern Promises. Cronenberg made it a point to place detailed attention on the symbolism and importance of the tattoos that prisoners and mafia members acquired
The Russian Mafia has been around as long as the Soviet Union has been dismembered, some even argue before it’s demise. Supposedly one of the most powerful criminal organizations in modern history, the Russian Mafia has always been based on a strict code of dignity, respect, and honor.
The history of Russian Mafia Tattoos date back to the notorious Russian prison camp system, known as the Soviet gulag. It was during this collapse that a new breed of professional criminals were spawned, fueled by a hybrid sense of dignity, tradition and desperation, as their communist empire fell.
Russian criminal tattoos have a complex system of symbols which can give quite detailed information about the wearer. Not only do the symbols carry meaning but the area of the body on which they are placed may be meaningful too.
Wearing false or unearned tattoos is punishable in the criminal underworld. Tattoos can be voluntarily removed (for loss of rank, new affiliation, “life style” change, etc.) by bandaging magnesium powder onto the surface of the skin, which dissolves the skin bearing the marks with painful caustic burns.
To the naked eye, one look at the tattoos of the Russian Mafia and they appear to be nothing more than cathedrals, portraits, crosses, stars and spider webs. It’s hard to be absolutely sure of the exact translation that some of these tattoos contain, as I’m sure things have been manipulated and adjusted throughout history.
Here are some of the criminal tattoo symbols used in the Russian underworld:
- Cathedral, church of monastery - Usually on the chest, shoulder, or back. Depending on the number of steeples or towers are shown on the tattoo, it translates to the number of years, or number times an individual has been incarcerated. It’s common to find the phrase “The church is the house of God” written beneath the cathedral – which is usually translated to “Prison is the home of the Thief”.
- Stars – If there are star tattoos on the shoulders, it typically symbolizes a individuals dignity and honor and that he lives by a certain code and tradition. Star tattoos on the knee caps are usually given once a member has become promoted to Captain status, and it symbolizes that the owner of the tattoo will never be brought to his knees.
- Pirate tattoo – This means that the owner has committed armed robbery, or article 167 of the Russian Criminal Code.
- Cobweb – Usually found on the shoulder. Thought this tattoo has become popular amongst suburban rebels and movie stars, in the Russian Prison system it stands for drug addiction.
- Barbed wire - Tattooed across the forehead signifies a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
- Madonna and baby Jesus - Indicates the person has been a thief since childhood.
- Skulls - Signifies murder, if the murder was significant enough to merit the tattoo. Military insignia and uniform epaulets are worn on the shoulders. This symbolizes criminal accomplishments. When a Skull symbol is portrayed with it, it usually designates a man as a murderer. Epaulets are decorated with certain crests and symbols in the sections where one can see the Skull there prior to conviction, especially when it was of any significance.
- Rose (white-dried) - Death is preferable to loss of virtue. Also the initiation tattoo of a new gang member is usually placed on the chest and may incorporate a rose this is also used within the Russian Mafia and other Russian gangs.