A Baltimore Sun story [scroll down to #4, “Drawn to tattoos’ secrets”] describes how Danzig Baldayev has compiled a 166-page book called Tatuirovki zaklyuchennykh (“Prisoners’ Tattoos” or, as the publisher renders it, “Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia”; to be published in English as Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia), analyzing the designs to be seen on the skin of graduates of the Russian penal system:

Baldayev, 75 and retired, used his time as a guard to observe the tattoos prisoners here apply to each other.

“It was like a foreign language,” Baldayev says, “so I started to collect it.”…

A prisoner who has a tattoo of a cat smoking a pipe is a successful thief, Baldayev says. A snarling tiger or wolf means the thief is particularly powerful. A murderer might have a tattoo of a warrior in armor standing on severed heads or a tattoo of a sword piercing a skull.

Some prisoners have tattoos of churches. The number of domes on the churches represents the number of years spent in prison.

The whole story is fascinating, with a striking anecdote about Lev Gumilyov‘s prison experience. (Via things magazine.)


  1. I’m always facinated by the Chinese Characters that many people choose to have tatooted on their body. They often don’t mean what people think they mean, although you can usually figure out what they were thinking – sometimes they are even put on backwards… I think there is some standard book that most tatoo parlors use to figure out what characters mean what, and usually these books list characters individually, while most words are actually compounds of two characters – so people put the characters back together according to the literal meaning of each character, producing a non-word. Often the initial translation is from Japanese, not Chinese, which further confuses the issue.

  2. I’m pleased and impressed to see that things magazine is still going strong.

  3. “Thief” in Baldaev’s quote is a generic term for a professional criminal, not a specific occupation. I thought that the number of church domes was the number of times the “thief” went inside, not the number of years, but I am too busy right now to investigate.

  4. Thanks. Needless to say, one can’t trust US newspapers to get such things right.

  5. David Marjanović says

    They often don’t mean what people think they mean

    There’s a whole blog (2004–2019) about this. Beware of the links to “the gibberish font”; they should come with trigger warnings…

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