Tattoos in Russia

Click through each image in this post for the source/an explanation of the tattoo.

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).

Russian Prison Tattoo Neck

Russian Prison Tattoo Neck

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?

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15 thoughts on “Tattoos in Russia

  1. No tattoos myself, but now that it’s warm out in Moscow, I have been paying more attention to people’s ink, and I have seen a lot of full-sleeve situations. I rarely see them on girls though – probably less than I did in the US. Just me?

    • Yes, I think in general people don’t have as many tattoos here as in the US. However it seems like there’s been a huge increase in the people with tattoos, even since 2010 when I moved to Moscow.

  2. I’m just outside of the age (and, it seems felony) range of the fashionably tattooed. I wouldn’t want one on me. But I have no strong feelings about other people getting or not getting them.
    Having said that, I have spotted some hideously (to me) ugly ones that have horrified me, like deer skulls across women’s chests and spider’s webs down their legs. Eeeeek.

  3. Being a Russian, and now living in Minnesota, I can definitely say people here love tats as much here as they do there! I don’t know if they put that much meaning into them! Maybe, just maybe!
    Another fun thing to do in a big city like Moscow or NYC, is if you have a friend who speaks Chinese, have them tell you what all those hieroglyphic tattoos really say :)

  4. I’m adding to my tattoo (was the intention when I started it a couple years ago) this month, too! Really excited to do it. It’s a partial sleeve, actually, haha, I suppose that’s a trend now, yes. Not sure what to say about the “trending” — only that if a person likes something, do it! If they don’t like something, then don’t do it! Trends will always exist, won’t they?

    There was a funny post somewhere out here in the blogosphere about hipsters that really struck a chord with me, and not in a good way. It really shat on hipsters. I don’t necessarily like them or have a problem with them, I just see each person as someone living their life. But I’ll admit that the globalization that we face now is definitely letting trends like that spread quickly across many countries, thereby taking any shread of individuality out of whatever the origin of the trend was… Personally I’ve decided to settle on the idea that if a person likes something, not doing it because it’s popular is just as bad as doing it because it’s popular.

    Hah, sorry, perhaps a bit off topic. Hipsterism and trends in general have been weighing on my mind! Especially since being in Korea. I say get your ass tatted up!

    • I don’t really have a problem with trends except that’s it’s uninspiring to see the same thing over and over.

      I do agree with you that trends happen so quickly now that the world is really becoming homogenous and, again, kind of more boring. I can’t really argue whether that’s a good or bad thing, particularly in something so (relatively) unimportant as tattoos. But you’re right, it is happening.

  5. I have a lotus on my back. I love it!I got it on a whim. not like me… But a college reunion turned boring, the rest is history. My college mate and I got tattoos. I have never regretted it, but I don’t want any more. One is enough.

    Your blog has made me think of them differently. I had never given much thought of them culturally. Only when I saw the Japanese way of doing it on TV a few years back. Come to think of it. I don’t see many here in Serbia. Now that it is summer, and I am going to the pool, I will notice them. ? We will see.

  6. japan is an interesting case study for tattoos, mainly because the first place they really became popular is among the crime community (e.g. yakuza). while it isn’t the case today (lots of younger people have tattoos) the stigma is still attached to them.

    for instance, many public baths have signs posted that say anybody with a tattoo cannot enter. if an employer discovers that you have a tattoo, it has been shown to significantly decrease the chance of you being hired. in school, especially as ALTs, we are encouraged to do everything possible to cover up our tattoos (such as ace bandages, bandaids, make-up, etc.)

    seems like it kind of takes after russia in that way.

    • I’ve heard of the public bath rules before — very interesting!

      I think Russia has the same mentality as Japan but with less strict followthrough (shocker). I know I’ve signed contracts with companies here that require you cover your tattoos while at work, but teachers have left some pretty visible. I think, again, it’s the old vs. new mentality — older directors are slightly horrified while young students just don’t care.

  7. THANK YOU SO MUCH. i am going to russia for the first time in just over a month to start my EFL teaching career and…i’m kind of covered in tattoos. one of my biggest concerns was that i wouldn’t see anyone else with tattoos and that most people would think i’m weird. it’s good to know that there are plenty of tattooed folk in moscow. that’s one fear i can check off my list….

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