Prison is known for a lot of eccentric happenings, including inmates getting tattoos. Prison tattoos exist to ally one with certain factions, establish rank and reputation, and (maybe not even consciously) as a way to tell their stories. The tattoos are created using homemade kits, which are typically unsanitary and often wielded by those with rudimentary skills at best. Still, prison tattoos are a common practice, and are found all over the world. One country famous for its tattoos is the Russian prison system, where tattooing traditions go way back.
In prisons and labor camps, tattoos sported by prisoners were much more than decoration. They would be pictorial stories of the reason they were in prison. They would show rank among their fellow prisoners. They were an outlet to express attitudes on the current government and society (generally not a positive one).
Symbols and even placement of tattoos would be adopted to represent different ideas, such as cats for home burglars, military-style medals to show prison rank. At the same time, tattoos could be given as punishments, branding someone forever as an informant or someone who broke a criminal “code.” Law enforcement officials also found the tattoos useful; the more unique a tattoo, the easier it is to identify an unknown person…or a body.
After realizing that tattoos were a serious method of communication among prisoners, law enforcement in Russia began to prison tattoos. Between the mid 60s and the mid 80s, Arkady Bronnikov, an criminalistics expert from the USSR”s Ministry of Internal Affairs, documented hundreds of inmates at correctional facilities in the Ural and Siberia regions. He took their photos and interviewed them about their tattoos. His records helped police with many cases, identifying criminals and bodies. In 2013, an English design firm and publishing house, FUEL, acquired Bronnikov”s files, which had been only available to the Russian police. The 918 photos and their descriptions were compiled into a book, which is now available for sale.
From a perhaps less immediately practical viewpoint than criminal identification, Bronnikov”s records show more than just identifying marks on criminals. They also show the personal histories of each criminal, written in their own “words.” These histories are encoded within a unique set of symbols, and serve as a rather dark alternate version of history. These men all went through quite a lot in their incarceration, and certainly didn”t want this fact to go unnoticed and forgotten.