Sergei Vasiliev: Russian Criminal Tattoos 1989-1993

Former law enforcer and later ‘Vecherny Chelyabinsk’ staff photographer Sergei Vasiliev had the privilege of access to some of the most notorious and hardened criminals in Russian prisons and reform settlements across Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, Perm and St Petersburg, from about 1989-1993. In these years he managed to document the unique visual code on the skin-canvas of these out-of-law men. It is important to note that these tattoos, in the closed circle of the Russian underworld of the early ’90s, were not fashionable embellishments to flaunt, but rather, they were personal histories marking the criminals’ route through the prison system, their ranks in the gangland hierarchy,  successes and failures, promotions, demotions, kills, transfer of work, and so on. Unlike the more commercially pop and fairly visible Japanese yakuza tattoos, the visual code captured by Vasiliev maps a rather curious irony – that these notorious gangsters were honest in not running away from their past, never putting a tattoo which they had not earned, and always living up to what they have done and they might do, and inking it on their skins as daily reminders of who they are. And because of who they were, they are now long dead and gone.

The epaulette tattooed on the shoulder, the thieves’ stars and religious tattoos on the chest all denote this thief’s high rank. The skull in the centre of the epaulette can be deciphered as: ‘I am not and will never be a slave, no one can force me to work’.

The eyes on the stomach mean that this gangster was a homosexual (the penis makes the ‘nose’ of the face).

This convict’s tattoos were applied in the camps of the Urals where the tattoo artists produce work of exceptional quality. Because they were so held in such high regard, criminals often attempted to be transferred there in order to be tattooed.

Prison is this thief’s home, he is of the highest rank in the thieves’ social hierarchy. His ring tattoos show that he was the only underage detainee in his circle of thieves.

A high-ranking, authoritative thief. In the early 1950s, it became customary for thieves to tattoo dots or small crosses on the knuckles, the number of dots indicating the number of terms.

Text across the chest reads ‘As long as I breathe, I hope’. The turbaned man clutching a knife in his mouth indicates an inclination to brutality and sadism. The dagger through the neck shows that the prisoner committed murder while in prison, and that he is available to ‘hire’ for further murders.

The epaulette and the spider on the shoulders denote a high-ranking criminal. The text across the chest reads: ‘O Lord, forgive me for the tears of my mother’.

‘Gott mit uns’: ‘God with us’ was a rallying cry of both the Russian empire and the Third Reich. The Nazi Iron Cross expresses ‘I don’t care about anybody’.

The tattoos on the face signify that he never expects to go free.

The roaring tiger is a symbol of the gangster’s aggression, known as an oskal (bared teeth). It was common among convicts who are hostile to the authorities.

An authoritative, ‘legitimate’ thief. The tattoo on the chest is a portrait tattoo of a loved one, the text in the clouds left and right reads ‘Curse you Communists / for my wasted youth’. Text above reads ‘Give me freedom / I will become more honest’.

Convict (left) on both arms: ‘I live in sin / I die laughing’. Images of demons and monsters are intended to intimidate other inmates and give significance to the bearer within his circle. Convict (centre) German text below the neck: ‘God with us’; on the left arm: ‘Hurry up and live’. The sailing ship on the forearm signifies a lust for freedom and that the bearer is a potential escapee. Convict (right) on upper arm: ‘Keep love’; on forearm: ‘KRAB’: Klyanus Rezat Aktivistov i Blyadey (I swear to kill activists and sluts). The rose on the shoulder means that the bearer turned eighteen in prison.

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13 Comments on "Sergei Vasiliev: Russian Criminal Tattoos 1989-1993"

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why glamourize criminals?
seriously dude go back to school…its a documentation


why glamourize criminals?


great work,,, but i guess he had the right connections to get into high security prisons…personally I would like to take up a project like this, but i do not know anyine inside the prison system


very good documentation


A knife through the neck. No thank you.


prison is no pretty place, and certainly these men are no angels.


i really feel sorry for these guys..esp forthe guy with his face tattooed…why??

Puente 'needle' Gonzaga
Puente 'needle' Gonzaga

excellent reference for tattoo artists…some of them are very finely done..some not so much


Interesting visual sub-culture. The notion of permanence is important perhaps for these men, who know clearly, that time is not on their side. Thank you.


I like the gay man haha


dang, look at these guys eyes…says it all…..hope no one messed with them too bad.

E Agarand

I am a tattoo FREAK, and this is AMAZING!