I’ve been thinking about getting a second tattoo. Like anything else you’re thinking about a lot, you start to notice it everywhere. Now, like anywhere else in the world, Moscow and Saint Petersburg are chock full of hipsters/scenesters/bros/moms/dads with brightly colored tattoos. Prime spots seem to be the ever popular upper arm (a tribal band, of course) and calves/knees. There’s also a huge surge of full sleeves on very non-alternative looking people.
I’m not one to judge — get tattoos for whatever reason you want. I’m not a person that people might immediately assume would have a tattoo, but I don’t think there’s any reason why tattoos have to be limited to a certain subset of people.
Having said this, Russia is a very interesting place to have a tattoo done. The evolution of tattoos in post-2000s Russia is really quite radical. For younger people I think it’s just become a (relatively) cheap and easy way to show some personality. However for the older set, there is a pretty extreme anti-tattoo feeling — the people who were tattooed in the USSR were prisoners, marking themselves as hardened criminals.
The subculture of Russian prison tattoos is really fascinating to look at. These DIY tattoos really have (or had) a stigma attached to them. Check out the hands of any middle age Russian marshrutka driver: he’s likely got knuckle tattoos and several more on prominent display. Unsurprisingly, having a prison tattoo basically relegates you to the very low end of the job spectrum.
Russian prison tattoos are deeply meaningful: where they’re placed on the body and what symbolism they use can immediately identify what crimes someone committed, who they’re affiliated with, and a lot more. Like many gangs in the Americas, religious iconography is used pretty heavy-handedly (particularly in post-Soviet times).
Read this article for details of Danzig Baldaev, who studied Russian prison tattoos.
Check out this interesting documentary: Mark of Cain.
OK, ‘fess up. Who’s got a prison tattoo? Or less interestingly, any tattoo at all? What are the cultural implications of them where you are?