I think we can all agree that tattoos have gotten pretty common these days. Walk into any mall, movie theater or public space and ink abounds on people of all shapes and sizes…and it’s a good thing. A colorful and vibrant panoply of personal expression.
But as tattooing has become more commonplace and less steeped in tradition and mystery certain imagery has migrated from the forbidden to the flash page of your local shop. What may have gotten you killed (or worse) now appears to be a simple fashion statement so I ask the question; Is it still forbidden to get certain images tattooed without the proper affiliation and permission? What -if any -Tattoo Taboos exist?
Now I think we can all agree that Russians are a special breed of tough and resilient. I have gleaned this observation from 3 important sources.
- You Tube. Watch any video centered around shenanigans taken in Russia and you will see what I mean. American Version – kid jumps off car port roof into snow drift. Russian Version; man jumps off 5 story building into trash dumpster. Point – never dare a Russian to do anything. Ever. They will kick your ass.
All bad guys in any movie. Bad guys used to be middle-easterny but lately they are awesomely Russian. The pale eyes, the heavy accent, the tightly controlled minions. I get scared just thinking about it.
Which brings me to
Taboo #1 Russian Mafia Tattoos – Star or No Star?
Many are aware that Russian stars are specifically related to Russian crime …specifically organized crime. And yet I frequently see these symbols tattooed on regular folks. Now sure, maybe the cute 20 something barista at my local Starbucks is actually a Russian gangster but I sort of doubt it. And yet she has those stars right on her elbows. Hmmmm.
According to www.russiancriminaltattoos.com (this site loads a lot of spam – be careful) these stars are exclusively used for the Russian mob. What happens if you are wearing these unearned tattoos and run into the wrong Russian? According to Wikipedia not much except, “forced removal, beatings, assault and/or murder”. Here are a few more common tattoo images with their Russian association.
- Barbed wire across the forehead signifies a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole (tattoos on the face usually signifies an expectation that the bearer will never leave prison). Barbed wire on the forearms or around the wrist signifies years served.
- Cat: a career as thief. A single cat means the bearer worked alone; several cats mean the bearer was part of a gang. The word “cat,” in Russian, forms an acronym indicating the wearer’s natural home is in prison.
- Churches, mosques, fortresses, etc. are often tattooed on the chest, back, or hand. The number of spires or towers can represent the years a prisoner has been incarcerated, or number of times he has been imprisoned. A cross at the top of the spire indicates that the sentence was paid in full. The phrase, “The Church is the House of God,” often inscribed beneath a cathedral, has the metaphorical meaning, “Prison is the Home of the Thief.”
- Dots on knuckles: number of years served in prison.
- Madonna and baby Jesus indicates that the bearer is ‘clean before his friends’ in that he will never betray them to authorities.
- Dagger: sex offender
- Dagger in neck: Signifies that the bearer has killed and is available for hire to kill other prisoners.
- Executioner: Murderer, or that they follow the The Thieves’ Code
- Goat: Informer, an animal without honour.
- Rose (white-dried): Death is preferable to loss of virtue.
- Rose with thorns: Bearer came of age in prison.
- Stars: Worn on the knees: signifies that the owner will kneel before no man, or no one.
- Stars: Worn on the shoulders: Signifies that the owner is a man of discipline, status, and tradition. Men will also receive stars when promoted to “Captain” in the Vory V
- Skulls: Signifies murder, if the murder was significant enough to merit the tattoo. Military insignia and uniform epaulets are worn on the shoulders. This symbolizes criminal accomplishments. When a skull symbol is portrayed with it, it usually designates a man as a murderer. Epaulets are decorated with certain crests and symbols in the sections where one can see the skull there prior to conviction, especially when it was of any significance.
information courtesy of Wikipedia.
So maybe that awesome dagger through the rose in the center of your chest flanked by Russian stars should be reconsidered? Maybe.
ya pokazhu vam s ogromnym uvazheniyem ( “I show you the utmost respect.”)
Next up (and less scary)
Taboo #2 Autism Tattoos – What is up with the puzzle piece tattoo?
if you watch Best Ink then maybe you saw the episode where resident cranky-puss Lara
refused to tattoo a puzzle piece on a woman’s leg because she insisted this imagery was exclusively Autism related. As in unless you are speaking out about Autism you may not carry this image on your body. She was kind of a beeyatch about it (no surprise there if you ever watched the show) but I wondered about it. Luckily a mere week later I happened to be getting tattooed by THIS awesome lady
So I asked Hannah Aitchison – who knows a thing or two about tattoos – if she had heard of this Tattoo Taboo. Her answer, No. With well over 20 years of experience and thousands of tattoos to her name she had not come across the notion that puzzle pieces were exclusively for Autism awareness. Now that being said many people who are affected by Autism DO have puzzle tattoos;
And the official website (for Autism tattoos) has stated that “this puzzle is a symbol of the complexities and the mysterious nature of autism. For a person whose near and dear ones have had to deal with this condition, getting an autism tattoo is about solidarity. It also expresses hope that a person may recover as has happened in some cases in the past. When it comes down to it, it is a symbol of expressing what you feel and think.”
So a puzzle tattoo for a loved one struggling with Autism IS a great idea but it is not an exclusive one. Chill-ax Lara.
“Tattoos have been banned in Japan more than once in it’s history, so the Yakuza always stop their tattoos at the ankle, wrist and neck as their ancestors did, so the tattoo can easily be hidden by their clothing, just in case they become banned again even though this is very unlikely.”
“The method the Yakuza use for their tattoos is not a modern one, they use a method called “horimono” it’s done manually by hand with a stick with needles at the end usually in a bundle. This method is very painful, time consuming, and expensive, since the Yakuza cover most of their body with the tattoo it can actually take years to finish using this method and can cost up to fifty thousand dollars!”
“Why do Yakuza get tattoos in the first place? They get it for more than one reason. For one they get the tattoo to show their determination, strength and willpower. They also get it to show their loyalty to their Yakuza clan and it’s lifestyle, and sometimes they get a black ring around their arm for every crime they have committed. You might think the Yakuza get tattoos for the intimidation factor, but they don’t. They rarely show their tattoos in public unless absolutely necessary.”
again, thank you Wikipedia
Watashi wa anata ni saidaigen no keii o shimesu ( “I show you the utmost respect”)
So what about all those gorgeous full body Asian style pieces out there? Are you stepping on Yakuza toes? I don’t know but just to be safe maybe stop at the wrists and ankles. And stay away from bath houses. And prisons. And probably Russians. Unless you are going to be VERY polite.
So what does it all mean? Well for one, tattooing is much MUCH more than mere decoration. For many throughout history and even today it is a coded language that speaks to affiliation, status, and community. Should you carry ink that has heavy significance for another group or culture? My answer is a careful “maybe”.
But before you go slapping some serious iconography on your body because it “looks awesome” at least do your homework and know a bit about what that ink may mean. And learn some Russian.
this article originally appeared here on May 2014 and on Tattoodo in 2015