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Russian Prison Tattoos Essay

1186 words - 5 pages

With every culture comes traditions, ideas, and beliefs that are their own. Tattoos play an important role in many cultures. Every culture has its own methods of tattooing, the types of tattoos they receive, and what the tattoos symbolize. It is clear that people from one culture will view tattoos from another culture differently than tattoos worn within their own culture. When comparing tattoos between Russian prison inmates and everyday North American tattoos, several similarities and differences can be seen.
North American and Russian prison tattoos are similar in many ways in regards to what motivates them to obtain them. One major similarity is that tattooing is a means of signifying ...view middle of the document...

Mr. Arkady Bronnikov, a leading expert in tattoo iconography explains, "The more tattoos a convict gets, the more sentences he has served, the more respect he gets in prison. The tattoos show that he isn't afraid of pain” (qtd. in Wikipedia 1). This image of toughness is also displayed in Northern America. Although it was not my intention, I myself have been considered by others to be “tough” simply because of the extent of my tattoos. Additionally, both Russian prison inmates and North Americans can use tattoos as a way to signify rebellion, indicating that they do not belong to the larger dominant culture as well as a form of self-expression by asserting a level of control over one’s own body.
A number of differences can be observed when comparing tattoos acquired by Russian prison inmates and the average tattoos worn by North Americans. One interesting difference is that Russian prison tattoos silently communicate an inmate’s status or ranking through the use of symbols that have a collective meaning and are readable by all members. “Older prisoners tattooed the letters KAT on their face in order to pass as senior prisoners and gain authority within the prison population” (Wahlstedt 22). As a result, a Russian prisoner can convey their status within the hierarchy of the criminal culture. This is not true with North Americans. It is not possible to calculate a North American’s ranking or status by the tattoos they have alone, even though they too use symbols that have a particular meaning to them.
In North America, tattoos are viewed as a fashion or trend. At the legal age, an individual can go to a tattoo artist and have a tattoo placed. In Russian prison, the tattoo has to be earned. If an inmate acquires a tattoo deceitfully there can be very harsh consequences. “Wearing false or unearned tattoos is punishable in the criminal underworld, usually by removal of the tattoo, followed by beatings and sometimes rape, or even murder (“All about tattooing in Prisons”). In North America, there aren’t such harsh consequences, if any, for someone not approving of your tattoo regardless of how the tattoo was obtained. Furthermore, in North America, tattoos are usually done professionally by a person licensed to do so. Because tattooing in Russian prison is illegal, inmates are left with no choice and tattoos are done in secret. Therefore, inmates have to improvise with the materials they have to form primitive tools. “Tattoos done in a Russian prison often have a distinct bluish color (due to being made with ink from a ballpoint pen) and usually appear somewhat blurred...

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