A Helpful Guide to Russian Jail Tattoos If You Ever End Up in a Siberian Prison

Not many of them mean ‘really nice guy’
A Helpful Guide to Russian Jail Tattoos If You Ever End Up in a Siberian Prison

So, you done goofed up. You got a little too loose off fine Russian vodka, and now you find yourself headed to prison, the way only the Russians know how to do it. Not great! Given that they’re not known for their parole policies, you might want to start making best buds in there, especially when the alternative is the nickname “The American Pincushion.” 

It’s hard, though, to decide exactly who you want to pick out as your best bud. Walking up to new people and trying to be friends with them is nerve-racking enough in elementary school, let alone a Russian jail. Luckily, you can get a little preview of what your fellow prisoners might be all about by the ink they’ve chosen. Here are some tattoos to look for and what they might tell you…

Domed Church

Probably the most common one, these are usually massive chest pieces of kremlins, or orthodox churches. The number of domes can show either the number of convictions they've had, or how many years they've spent in prison. Who knows, maybe you’ll end up with one of these yourself!

Eight-Pointed Stars on Shoulders

If you see somebody with eight-pointed stars on their shoulders, know that they already have their own friends: the vory v zakone, or Russian mafia. And they’re probably not looking for new ones. Viggo Mortensen famously receives these stars in a scene from Eastern Promises.

Eight-Pointed Stars on Knees

Hand-in-hand with the shoulder stars are the same stars on the knees, signifying that they will kneel before no authority. I wouldn’t recommend comparing this to Game of Thrones.


Like the eight-pointed star on steroids. If you see an inmate with epaulettes tattooed on their shoulders, they’re probably not a friend-in-waiting. It means they’re a person of extremely high authority in the prison, and a tattoo that proves itself by inviting anyone to question it.


Another bit of jail tattoo trompe l’oeil is a tattoo of manacles on the wrists and/or ankles. Each one represents five years in jail, so probably not smart to open with “so are you new here?”



If you decide to become best jail buds with someone bearing a great cat or a wolf baring their teeth, get ready to be involved in plenty of altercations. These are called oskals, meaning “big grin” in Russian, and they mean the owner is aggressive toward authority.

Snake Around the Neck

Want to while away your prison time cooked out of your mind on illegal drugs? Try to track down somebody with a snake around their neck, symbolizing their drug addiction. Their likeliness to share the goods is up to you to find out.

Rose Wrapped in Barbed Wire

If you see somebody rocking a rose surrounded by barbed wire, you probably won’t be able to bond over current events. It means that they were incarcerated before the age of 18, and have spent basically their whole life in prison.



Imagine this, but you know, more… prison-y.

If you figure that, now that you’re part of the criminal underbelly of the world, you might as well learn a trade, keep an eye out for inmates bearing cats, often seen in a top hat and holding keys. These lil’ kitties name their owners as professional thieves.


If you’ve instead got steady hands and sensitive ears and think your future might be in safecracking, look for tattoos of bears. Bear is medved in Russian, which is also slang for safe, and a Medvezhatnik is a safecracker.


If you want to get all Artful Dodger with it, a prisoner with a beetle on their hand is likely a professional pickpocket. The Russian word for beetle is zhuk, and it also serves as the acronym ZhUK: Zhelayu Udachnykh Krazh, or “may your theft be a success.”


The tattoo that it’s probably best to stay far away from, and also the one that was least likely to have been received voluntarily: a mermaid tattoo signifies a child molester. Which means it also basically serves as a tattoo that says, “Stab me!”

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