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The Meaning Behind Russian Gangster Tattoos

These days, it seems like everyone's got a Chinese symbol etched somewhere on their shoulder blades, and ink is more a badge of hipness than a marker that you've gone through the prison system. But tattoos have a long, storied gang history, and Russian mobsters have been using them for years as permanent resumes, noting rank and important events like murder and theft.

 In Eastern Promises, Viggo Mortensen's characters shows the higher-ranking gangsters his ink

Russian mafia tattoos started gaining popularity during the Soviet Union's heyday. Prisoners were put through a brutal Soviet prison system known as the "gulag"; there, they began to create their own power hierarchy based on time served and crimes committed, among others. They branded themselves with tattoos so others could see at a glance where they stood, and the various crimes they committed.

 You had to earn the tattoos you bore—gangsters caught with tattoos symbolizing false status had them brutally removed with sandpaper, glass and other abrasives, or were even killed or raped. Here are a few classic Russian gang tattoos and their meanings:

THE CATHEDRAL: A cathedral (or monastery, church, castle or fortress) tattooed on the back, hand or chest tends to denote the amount of time the bearer has been in prison, with each steeple representing a year. It can also indicate the number of times the bearer has been incarcerated, if he's served time for multiple offenses.

THE COBWEB: A spider's web, usually found on the shoulders, says the bearer has or had a drug addiction. A spider on the shoulders denotes that the bearer has a high rank.

THE CAT: Cat tattoos serve as the mark of a thief. A single cat means the thief acted alone; multiple cats say the thief was part of a bigger gang.

THE DAGGER: A dagger through the neck means that the bearer killed someone while incarcerated. It also indicates that he is available to be hired for a "hit". If there are drops of blood tattooed on the blade, those indicate the number of murders the bearer committed.

KNUCKLE DOTS: The number of dots on the bearer's knuckles correlate to the number of years the bearer served in prison.

STARS: Stars tattooed on the knees mean the bearer will bow down to no man. On the shoulders, they can mean the bearer is one of discipline, high status and tradition, or they denote that the bearer has been promoted to captain of the mafia.

THE BULL: A bull tattooed on the chest or forearm means the bearer is a hitman, and has been hired by their mafia boss to kill.

THE PIRATE: A pirate tattoo means the bearer has committed armed robbery.

THE TIGER: A tiger tattoo is usually found on the neck, arms or back. It typically signifies that the bearer has killed a law enforcement officer, like a policeman or prison guard.