Photo from Arkady Bronnikov Collection

Photo from Arkady Bronnikov Collection

S+ Stimulant: Russian Prison Tattoos



“Every picture tells a story don’t it?” – Rod Stewart


The Russian criminal underworld is full of stories which are revealed through intricately coded body art. The body becomes a linguistic object, tattoos forming a unique language of symbols that act as a collective memory. The allegorical images may seem familiar, but each one conveys secret symbolic information.

Traditional tattoos depict rank and distinction, and in the world of thieves, a man with no tattoos has no social status. The tattooed body is continually in dialogue with the world surrounding it, and a man becomes dependent on the symbols of his tattoos. They are sometimes referred to as paintings, and the stories they depict can transform the wearer into a character of his own criminal life, allowing for an artistic self-expression.

Photo from Arkady Bronnikov Collection

Photo from Arkady Bronnikov Collection

Intuitive methods have been found to maintain the tradition during imprisonment. Ink can be created by burning the rubber sole of a shoe and mixing with soot and urine. The ink is called mazut, which means fuel oil, and is the same word that is used for the most valuable food products in prison. The pigment is thus equated with highest material value. It is then placed under the skin by an instrument such as a guitar string or a sewing needle sharpened on concrete.

The intimate corners of the body become a canvas for a sacred and multidimensional language. Each image acts as an unofficial biography, detailing achievements and failures, or acting as the voice of a man expressing his own thoughts, feelings, memories and world view. The determination to continue to create these beautiful and intricate symbols within such a closed space proves that creative self-expression is possible anywhere. Every picture has a story to tell.


S+ Suggested reading: Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files by Arkady Bronnikov


C.T. 2014










Published: October 21st, 2014

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S+ Stimulant: Gag

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