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What is the Significance of Russian Organized Crime Tattoos?

By Amanda R. Bell
Updated May 16, 2024
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Russian organized crime tattoos have a great deal of significance; each one signifies where in the organization a person stands and what he has done or will do in his criminal career. There are also tattoos for length of incarceration, crimes committed, the character of the person, and his status in the Russian mafia. If a person has any of these tattoos on his body without earning it, it is considered a punishable offense under Russian mafia code.

The most common Russian organized crime tattoo indicating an individual has been to prison is a church or cathedral. The tattoo is typically on the back or shoulder, and the number of steeples represent how many years the person spent in prison or how many times he has been sent to prison. The cathedral tattoo is typically added to over a person's career and is a common prison tattoo; steeples are added after each year or immediately before release.

A tattoo of two bells is another common prison tattoo. Two ringing bells indicate that the individual will serve a life sentence in prison. The bells may be added to Russian organized crime tattoos depicting a cathedral or placed on both shoulders.

These tattoos also signify the types of crime that a person has committed. A pirate tattoo, for instance, indicates that the individual has committed armed robbery. A beetle on one or both hands, usually on the top, represent a thief. A tiger tattoo, often placed on the arms, neck, or back means that the mafia member has harmed or killed a police officer, prison guard, or other member of law enforcement.

Hit men and enforcers often have a tattoo of a bull on their chest or forearm, indicating that they kill for their boss. Members of the Russian mafia who have proven that they will not confess to a crime or implicate other members in a crime typically have a tattoo of a rune. Placement of the rune varies, although it is usually accompanied with a swastika indicating disdain for Russian law enforcement. In this context, the swastika does not indicate an affiliation with a Nazi organization or any anti-Semitic sentiments.

Other common Russian organized crime tattoos include a crucifix showing that the wearer supports criminal activity. A cobweb signifies that the person is either going through or recovering from a drug addiction. Tattoos can also signify where in the Russian organized crime hierarchy a person fits in.

Stars tattooed on the knees typically mean the individual is a captain in the mafia and will not submit to anyone. Stars on the shoulders, however, denote prison guards who are actually members of the Russian mafia themselves. Some stars on the shoulder can also signify that the wearer is extremely traditional. These tattoos are a huge part of the organization. Non-members or members who have themselves falsely tattooed with these symbols are often killed.

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Discussion Comments
By fify — On Mar 24, 2014

A spider looking upward means that the person is still active in organized crime. If the spider is looking down, it means that the person is leaving crime.

By SarahGen — On Mar 24, 2014

@turquoise-- You are absolutely right. It's very difficult for an average person to understand the tradition of tattoos in Russian organized crime. It is also difficult and sometimes impossible to know the meaning of some tattoos if one is not in the organization. Some tattoos do have secret meanings.

For example, a cathedral is a common tattoo used in Russian organized crime. If you and I saw someone with this type of tattoo, we would think that it has a religious or spiritual meaning. But the meanings are different and they vary from tattoo to tattoo.

Another interesting aspect of these tattoos is that a lot of it is done when an organized crime member is in prison. But tattooing is not allowed in prison. So they use whatever materials they have access to in that environment, which is not a lot. There is a high risk of infection from the tattoos for this reason.

By turquoise — On Mar 23, 2014

Wow, this is very interesting and frightening at the same time. Tattoos are clearly a very serious issue in the Russian mafia. I knew that the tattoos that mafia members have, carry certain meanings. But I had no idea that it was this detailed and numerous.

It's difficult for non-mafia to understand this culture. The activities of the mafia are not only illegal but also sinful according to most people. So the idea that someone would literally and permanently tattoo his activities on his skin is very idea foreign to me. I guess mafia members take pride in what they do.

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