The Body Speaks

The Culture and Nature of the Vor v Zakone Tattooing Practice

By: Dahlia Labatte

May 17, 2024

According to Isaac Newton’s Third Law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When the body is stripped of its inherent and individual ability of expression, that expression will inevitably manifest itself in another way. The Russian correctional system is one that stops at nothing to strip the human body of its identity and the incarcerated population of its community. In 1753, Imperial Russia, penal branding was standardized. Criminals are marked to show their status as official outsiders, and people that are effectively branded by the state as its property. This is the context in which tattooing begins to be associated with perceptions of criminality, and why habitual criminals begin to reclaim this with the development of the Vor v Zakone (“thief in law” or “legitimate thief”) culture in Russia, “branding retained considerable significance for how convicts conceived of themselves and ordered their own lives: the policy of bodily inscription imposed by authorities appears to have played a role in shaping how vagrants demarcated their own status and group identity in both Imperial and Soviet Russia.” However, due to its development within the prison system, and as a response to it, the vor v zakone culture is paradoxical in nature and rife with tensions, particularly concerning understandings of the body, community, and the prison space. This paper will argue the tattooing practice of the vor v zakone repositions understandings of the body and community, despite its paradoxical nature; becoming a vor v zakone allows the body to become a locus of identity and the prison becomes host to a community. This repositioning will be examined through a commonly used symbol in the tattooing practice of the vor v zakone: the Russian Orthodox church or monastery (figures 1-5), and its implications in understandings of the body and community in the prison space. 

Vor v Zakone (“thief in law” or “legitimate thief”)

The vor v zakone culture is a direct resistance against the prison being a space where the individual is stripped of personhood and community. Using the Cambridge dictionary definition, the vor v zakone tattooing practice walks the line of resistance, “the act of fighting against something that is attacking you, or refusing to accept something.” The tattooing practice is, at surface level, an act of resistance against the prison system. But it does not entirely resist the prison system; in certain ways it is attached to it. The culture of the vor v zakone is best described as an equal reaction and counterpart to the Russian prison system, it stays within the system to a point where it is attached to it. Because the culture developed in, and through, the prison system it became attached to it, and began to see it as an important and inevitable step for the legitimate thief in law. Being incarcerated became a rite of passage through the vor v zakone culture; rather than something to avoid and dismantle. Originating from the simultaneous perceived inevitability of incarceration, and the culture’s resistance to prison authority, this tension extends to understandings of body and space. The tattooing practice is a manifestation of that resistance and those tensions, and the only way to properly understand the tattooing practice of the vor v zakone is to accept those tensions. 

The (tattooed) Russian Orthodox Church

The tattooed symbol of the Russian Orthodox church is most often tattooed as a large chest piece, or on the hands or forearm (figures 1-5). It is generally understood to indicate how many years a person has been convicted for a particular charge, or how many convictions a person has received throughout their life; this is shown by the number of cupolas on the church. 

In Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, monasteries were used as correctional facilities, although for different reasons, “Monastery incarceration was the result of both religious and political intolerance of Imperial Russia and Orthodox church.” Although not as common as during Imperial Russian, Stalin’s anti-religion campaign led to the closure of monasteries and their occasional repurposing as museums, concert halls, or even a prison. Particularly, the Solovetski (Solovki) Island Monastery, built between 1436 and 1834, is generally understood to be one of the first special purpose camps of the gulag system. The primary example used in the development of the gulag camp system was first and foremost a monastery; and through this history the Russian prison space is tied to ideas of monasticism and religiosity, “The use of the sacred space of monasteries for the punishment of criminals and their simultaneous spiritual purification.” This connection allows a deeper understanding of the vor v zakone tattoo symbol of the Russian Orthodox church to represent the prison and the individual’s history with it. Through the tattooing of the Russian Orthodox church, the prison is shown as a space that is important to the vor v zakone and one that demands reverence. For the vor v zakone, visiting prison is understood as an important and inevitable stage in the life of a thief in law. This perceived inevitability of incarceration exists simultaneously with the rejection of the correctional system and prison authority; and this is the paradoxical nature of the vor v zakone culture that manifests itself in tattooing. 

In terms of the tattooing practice itself, in the incarcerated context, it is fundamentally tied to the prison system as an assertion of individual and community identity in resistance to prison authorities. Because it is banned by the prison, its practice is a resistance from the start. Furthermore, the symbolic language is hidden from prison authorities. In the prison where there is a complete lack of privacy, to keep something hidden from the prison authorities is a resistance, especially if it is something visible (like a tattoo). Because the tattooing practice and its resulting language is a closed practice, tattoo meanings can never be fully understood by an outsider, due to the danger of it being co-opted or compromised by prison authorities. Tattoo meanings are conveyed verbally and understood to be “not linear but volumetric and multidimensional”. 

Initiation, Tattooing and Transformation

Becoming a vor v zakone, or a legitimate thief, requires conscious participation; meaning an initiation (also called a “baptism”). Understanding the initiation process as a baptism highlights the church symbol of the tattoo, specifically its ritualistic implications of purification and transformation through the prison system, “remembering through tattooing is never void of spiritual undertones because the painful intervention into the body does not leave the tattooed the same as before having the tattoo” The tattooing of the Russian Orthodox church, and with its particular appearance (the number of cupolas) being dependent on the individual’s lived experience, shows a resistance against the imposed purpose of the prison system. While the tattooing of the Russian Orthodox church symbol forever ties their body to the prison system, it still gives the person evidence of their incarceration experience and place in a community. Although one remains a vor v zakone outside of the prison, the culture is one that develops in the individual within the prison space; and so it cannot be separated from that experience. Being in a correctional facility is seen as an inevitable rite of passage in initiation, to become a vor v zakone. 

An initiation is a ritualistic practice and implies a change of state for the individual; they are transformed, “Literally and metaphorically stripped to its minimum, here the body becomes a blank slate on which the incarcerated codify and write the principles governing their inner community, thereby reappropriating their bodies.” The death and rebirth of the individual into a vor v zakone is marked by their tattoos. The culture becomes reflected on their body as they become a part of a collective. When the prison is a place that is designed to alienate and strip an individual of identity, becoming a thief in law allowed one to reconnect with the individual and collective body. The individual can assert their identity as a resistance against the prison authorities, but for that assertion they are utilizing symbols that place them within another restricting collective. In the resistance against the prison system the individual themself may be affirmed but the body now belongs to the symbolic world of the vor v zakone. At the same time, the individual has asserted their identity and lived experience through their tattoos, they now become readable and accessible to the community of thieves. The legitimate thief’s body then becomes a public space. The thief can resist against the prison authorities’ symbolic access to their body, but through that resistance the body becomes public property for another group. 

The Body: Consent and Ownership

The vor v zakone culture is created in and through the prison system, it reflects it, meaning their strategy of resistance is one that reinscribes similar power relations to the authorities it challenges. This manifests itself in ideas of consent and ownership of the body, particularly the use of tattoos as brandings and the removal of tattoos that are seen as unreflective of the individual; as mentioned above, participating in the tattooing culture of the vor v zakone causes the body to become a public space that is acted upon by the culture. Tattoos for the vor v zakone are a trusted symbolic language that must be maintained, so if a tattoo does not reflect the lived experience or rank of individual they will be forcefully removed, “the tattoo is regarded as an inalienable and highly valued ‘body part’, and a man is regarded as part of a universal ‘tattoo text’. Any deception here is considered as blasphemy, a violation of the true sacred language.” The importance and trust given to the tattooing language comes from its development in the prison system. The meanings are already communicated verbally to avoid that knowledge being used by prison authorities. Due to this, it is necessary that the language of the tattoos remain ultimately opaque and inaccessible, as a result the misuse of a tattoo symbol is a punishable offense. Having a tattoo that does not reflect an individual’s rank or identity violates the trust of the tattoo language; when the body is seen as a readable source then tattoos are seen through the lens of fact or fiction. Anyone that collaborates with authority, performs the “submissive role” in sex, or just generally participates in homosexual activity, among other things, may be forcefully branded. While the nonconsensual giving and removal of tattoos are in line with the concept of seeking a body that reflects an individual’s identity and lived experience, they regardless maintain a power structure that is remarkably similar to the one being resisted against. 

The body is repositioned to be seen as representative of an individual and as part of a community, but it still does not have autonomy. The culture is visually imposed on the body as a person becomes a readable series of symbols. For the thief to have their experiences and beliefs marked on their body it both asserts their personhood while simultaneously alienating them from their body. A tattoo and the act of tattoo makes a person aware of their physicality, through pain. Following a tattooing the physical person is changed, the individual re-creates themself through the act of being tattooed, “The human body begins to resemble a magic idol when this ‘creation’ of love takes place on its surface: it is transformed into inanimate material for the act of creation.” However, there remains a tension between the creation of personhood that happens through tattooing, and the transformation of the body into a public space. The tattooing practice of the vor v zakone repositions the relationship with the body, and resists against the depersonalization that happens in the prison space and yet “this strategy of resistance reinscribes power relations even as it contests the hegemony of authorities.” The tattooed symbol of the Russian Orthodox church asserts personhood, simply through the act of getting tattooed and in the particulars of the design which is dependent on the person’s relationship with the prison system (number of years incarcerated or number of convictions received). Despite that apparent resistance, it forever links the physical body to that space. 

Community and the Prison Space

The core of the vor v zakone culture is a resistance against the prison system and its authorities, particularly the system’s erasure of the individual and community identity; it aims to alienate and break the human spirit. As mentioned, tattooing was a part of this social alienation strategy, which also means this group of social outcasts all have this symbol in common, and thus it becomes a source of community. The vor v zakone tattooing practice develops out of it; repositioning tattooing as a way to be a part of a community. The prison space becomes the locus of community rather than alienation, which becomes visible on the body. A thief in law may tattoo himself to show their profession as a criminal, their caste, their convictions, among other things (see figures 2 and 3). Meaning that a person can easily be identified as a vor v zakone by their body. Although the prison authorities may not be able to fully read the person, it is visible that they are partaking in vor v zakone culture. Tattooing in the prison is not allowed, so the presence of tattoos on the body is already a resistance to the authorities, and even more so if it has a layer of communication that is hidden from outsiders. The vor v zakone exists outside the prison, because once a person has gone through initiation, they have had a change of state which remains whether they are incarcerated or not. However, the primary location and activity of the vor v zakone is in the prison; it developed in the prison space, and it stays there. Most tattoos of the vor v zakone are linked to the prison space and to a person’s experience in relation to it (see figures 1-5 for more examples of tattoos). At surface level, the community resists prison authorities and allows an individual to retain a sense of collectivism that is lost in the prison space. But when the culture is visually reflected on the body, the physical person is now forever tied to that state of incarceration. The vor v zakone community itself cannot leave behind or transcend the prison space, and so neither can the body that the community is reflected on. 

The tattooing practice resists against the prison authorities, but it does not move past that system; it is its equal counterpart. This can be seen in the symbol of the tattooed Russian Orthodox church, because it is a widely used symbol and often tattooed as a large piece on the chest it shows the importance of the prison space for the vor v zakone. The symbol represents an individual’s time in prison, the use of a religious building and a large placement (most commonly seen tattooed as a large chest piece, see figures 1, 3, and 4) gives the time of imprisonment a level of authority and importance due the way it is represented. It signals that incarceration must be treated with a level of reverence. The individual ties themself to the community, and with that community they tie themself to the prison system. A vor v zakone attempts to reposition himself as an individual with autonomy, that is part of a community, which is resistant to the purpose of the Russian prison system. But because of the nature of the vor v zakone community, as a prison culture, they cannot escape that system. A person can try to remove the tattoo(s) after being released, but the mark will always be there. Through the ritualistic act of initiation and tattooing, the body is not the same as before. The tattooed individual both asserts himself as part of a collective, in resistance, but ties himself to incarceration. 

 

The tattoo of the Russian Orthodox church or monastery recalls the history of the Russian correctional system as one that is linked to religiosity and monasticism. When the prison system is repositioned as a place of community and a necessary rite of passage, rather than punishment, it calls into question ideas of choice. If the vor v zakone is resisting against the Russian prison system, what does it mean when that space becomes a rite of passage? A space that a person could choose, rather than be a victim of? Does the vor v zakone culture still retain an element of resistance at that point? These are all questions to discuss in further research, but are brought up by the tattooed symbol of the Russian Orthodox church. For the moment, in terms of ideas of choice, through the symbol of the Russian Orthodox monastery the life of the vor v zakone in the prison system can become similar to monasticism. The outside world is rejected and the person becomes devoted to the community that is found in the prison space. The prison space is altered by the vor v zakone, which is at surface level a resistance, but because the vor v zakone cannot transcend that space due to the nature of the culture it becomes attached to it. Prison becomes both a space that is to be combated and embraced as a rite of passage. The start of the vor v zakone tattooing tradition is a resistance and refusal of the Russian prison system. Despite its inherent tensions, the tattooing culture repositions understandings of the body and community within the prison space; through assertion of individuality and lived experiences to ritualistic collectivism. As seen through the implications of the tattooed symbol of the Russian Orthodox church, the vor v zakone’s relationship with incarceration is one that is paradoxical by nature; it both resists against and replicates the power relations of the correctional system. A comprehensive understanding of vor v zakone culture means accepting that it is paradoxical by nature. 

 

Appendix

Figure 1: Vasiliev, Sergei. Photograph of the upper body of a person with tattoos of a Russian Orthodox church, Madonna and child, and spider web. 1989-1992. In Danzig Baldaev, Alexei Plutser-Sarno, and Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia. Vol. 1, 105. Germany: Steidl/Fuel, 2003.

Figure 2: Vasiliev, Sergei. Photograph of a hand featuring ring tattoos, a tiger, and a Russian Orthodox church. 1989-1992. In Danzig Baldaev, Alexei Plutser-Sarno, and Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia. Vol. 1, 95. Germany: Steidl/Fuel, 2003.

Figure 3: Vasiliev, Sergei. Photograph of a person’s torso and arms featuring ring tattoos, a cross, a cat with a hat, a Russian Orthodox church. 1989-1992. In Danzig Baldaev, Alexei Plutser-Sarno, and Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia. Vol. 1, 385 . Germany: Steidl/Fuel, 2003.

Figure 4: Vasiliev, Sergei. Photograph of a person sitting in a chair looking off-camera with tattoos of a lion, leopard, a Russian Orthodox church among others. 1990-1993. In Danzig Baldaev, Alexei Plutser-Sarno, Sergei Vasiliev, and Anne Applebaum, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia. Vol. 1, 85. Germany: Steidl/Fuel, 2006

Figure 5: Vasiliev, Sergei. Photograph of a person’s upper body with tattoos of various quotes, a woman in a hat, a Russian Orthodox church among others. 1990-1993. In Danzig Baldaev, Alexei Plutser-Sarno, Sergei Vasiliev, and Anne Applebaum, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia. Vol. 1, 335. Germany: Steidl/Fuel, 2006

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