Russian criminal tattoos as fashion designs

Screen Shot 2010-11-19 At 4.50.33 Pm
Russia is a country where every third man has either done time or been through the camps during the Soviet era. The "Bosses" and "God-Fathers" in the Kremlin knew the value of free labor. So it's not surprising that some of my own family had been through the Soviet prison system. Its also not surprising that when we went to the beach in Russia, prison tattoos were abundant. I remember looking at the tattoos as a young child, images of religious icons, cathedrals, devils, cats, etc. I was fascinated, I must been like 7 or 8. I didn't even know they were called criminal tattoos. That name didn't come to mind until the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia came out. In Russian they were called simply, nakolki, a slang word for tattoos.

There was a time not too long ago when the images on these shirts stood for anti-authority, pride, honor and freedom. Freedom in a country where being a sheep was expected from all citizens. In a country where people were told how to live, what to say and what to think. The bodies that bore these images belonged to men and women who wouldn't bow down to the communist machine and decided to live life by their own laws. Be it good or bad, it was a choice they made and most stuck to it for their whole lives. They became wolves instead of sheep and recognized only the law of man (human law). They had their own code and their own courts.
Meht

The images in our designs are inspired by old Russian criminal tattoos that were about standing up to the powers that be and baring your teeth, about not selling your soul to the government. These tattoos were also a very diverse system of codes and information that can be read and deciphered by others in the know. With the MIR line, we try to give you a small glimpse into this old Russian sub-culture and understand its meanings and symbolism with the descriptions of each tattoo design.

The stigma of these tattoos has faded over the last 2 decades and this art and its images are slowly disappearing. MIR aims to keep the "Anti" alive for just a bit longer.

That brings me to how MIR came about. After I first saw the books, I knew that T-shirts and apparel with the tattoos is not too far away. The images are just too powerful and rebellious. A few years passed and I was working in a tattoo shop and started noticing more and more people were coming in with the Encyclopaedia and asking to get an image from the books. We turned them away mostly, because the shop was owned by Russians and we didn't think it was a good idea to tattoo most of the stuff from the books on someone that knows close to nothing about that world and sub-culture. At that time I thought it would be cool if I could offer those people a T-shirt with the image as a sort of "consolation prize." Plus a part of me also wanted to spread this fascinating Russian underground art to more people. A way for people to share their appreciation for this art with others. So I grabbed my friend Val who had a t-shirt line at the time and knew the ins and outs, and we started MIR with 10 designs and under 100 t-shirts. We have grown over the past few years but have a lot more in store.

DISCLAIMER: ALL THE TATTOOS THAT ARE USED ON THE SHIRTS ARE FROM 50'S AND 60'S AND DO NOT PROCLAIM U TO HAVE ANY ASSOCIATION WITH, RANK, OR STATUS IN ANY CRIMINAL ORGANIZATION OR CODE. SOME OF THE SHIRTS ARE HUMOROUS AND SOME ARE COMMEMORATIONS OF AN ERA THAT HAS GONE BY, BUT IS NOT FORGOTTEN. SO DON'T WORRY, YOU'LL BE SAFE =).


Eyes-On-Knees-1


Full of Love. The eyes tattoo has various meanings. It can mean that the wearer has an extra pair of eyes watching out. It can also mean that he/she has eyes ON her all the time, like in a prison for instance. The words under the eyes translate to "Full of Love".


Mir-Eagle


German eagle MIR logo. The German eagle has been around for centuries. The eagle is one of my favorite symbols and it stands for strength, power and anti-establishment. In Russian prison subculture, German symbolism was usually meant to show disdain for the system and the government and I believe that in some societies it is still valid today. The eagle conveys the message "Strike first, Don't wait for them to hit you!" MIR is a Russian word for "world". But its an acronym for "Menya Ispravit Rastrel" meaning "Execution will Reform Me".


Top-Hat-Owl


Safe Cracker Owl. The Owl design was first tattooed around the early 40's and usually meant that u were a burglar or a safe-cracker (hence the owl sitting on a crowbar). Kat. is an abbreviation of the Russian word "Katorzhnik" which means "sentenced to hard-labor", though "hard" was probably a soft word for it. If you made it through one of those camps and lived then you were one tough, resilient s.o.b. It was first applied back in the Tzarist Camps (1800-1917). The combination of the two may have been tattooed in memory of those who died in those camps or simply just to scare others.


Capped-Cat


Cat. The cat has been a symbol in Russian criminal tattoo culture since the beginning, partly because the cat abides by it's own rules. There are many variations of the cat tattoo. The cat symbolizes a thief that is good at what he does. This tattoo can show a man's or woman's connection with the criminal world. The word CAT or "KOT" (in Russian)is an acronym as are many other normal words that are tattooed. KOT stands for "Korenoi Obitatel' Tyurmi" or "Native occupant of Jail" as in Jail is my second home. This particular cat tattoo was also an anti-Soviet symbol and meant that the wearer disliked the current administration and the Soviet authorities as a whole. Mainly it was to show that the wearer, much like this cat, was a baaaad mother....shut your mouth=)))


Cat-Lock


Pussy Lock. The Pussy Lock is a woman's tattoo that was usually worn below the belly button and is self-explanatory.



Proud-Drunkard


Hooligan. This was a tattoo of a man who was convicted twice in the 1930's of penal code 74, which is disorderly conduct/public intoxication or as they say in Russian, hooliganism.


Lenin-Bop


Lenin BOP tattoo. A popular anti-authority tattoo but it has double meaning as do many other tattoos from that era. The letters underneath Lenin spell VOR, the Russian word for thief (which Lenin definitely was). But the letters are also an acronym that stand for Leader of October Revolution. So if an inmate was hassled by administration, he could always state that he was just really patriotic.


Anti-Social



The Antisocial Network. This is a tattoo worn by prisoners from the "antisocial" group, indicating absolute indifference to everything that is happening. The text is an iconic saying in Russian slang that translates roughly to "I couldn't give a damn". The light bulb makes up the last word. This expression was in use by criminals as well as regular Soviet population. Basically it can be for "anti-anything and everything".

See more designs at MIR.