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The man who reads the criminal mind by analysing convicts' tattoos

By Olga Gertcyk and Vera Salnitskaya
21 December 2015

Arkady Bronnikov collected more than 20,000 tattoos from male and female prisoners.

Arkady Bronnikov collected pictures of prisoners' tattoos for more than 20 years. Picture: Vera Salnitskaya

Now 89, from Perm, in the Urals, this former paratrooper is regarded as Russia's leading expert on criminal tattoos. 

'Our region has a lot of labour camps, including three jails for women,' he said. 'As I gathered material on drugs addicts for my thesis, I paid attention to the tattoos. 

'Then I started collecting them, at first it was just a hobby. By 1985, I gathered more than 20,000, and not only from Perm region, also from neighbouring places.

'In 1989, I retired. Before this, I had published about 25 manuals, on drug abuse, jail slang  - my dictionary has 10,000 words -  and on tattoos.

'In Medieval times, criminals were branded. Now they are not - but they mark themselves with tattoos, with some of them tattooed all over their bodies.'

Russia's leading expert of criminal tattoo


Russia's leading expert of criminal tattoo


Russia's leading expert of criminal tattoo
Getting the prison tattoo etiquette wrong can have devastating consequences for criminal. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya


Convicts' tattoos in Russia, as in the former Soviet Union, are a sign of prestige and status among the criminal fraternity, Bronnikov said. 

'The difference between Russian and Soviet tattoos from those in the West one is that the Western ones have  no criminal tradition,' explained the veteran criminologist, who has been consulted on solving countless crimes. 

'Criminals do not obey the law, they obey their own rules. The more tattoos the criminal has - not artistic ones but criminal - the higher his authority is.

'Tattoos can tell important things about a person, for example, how many times he was jailed. The body is often covered with clothes so they make tattoos as rings on fingers. One ring means one jail term. In my collection, there is a man with 16 rings.

'If a criminal made himself a wrong tattoo, bit more than he can chew, and in jails they check everything better than in police, where you were jailed, who was with you, this man will be seriously punished, beaten - or buggered.'

Russia's leading expert of criminal tattoo


Russia's leading expert of criminal tattoo
Arkady Bronnikov pictured in 1980s and soon after his marriage to Antonina. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya


His interest and analysis of tattoos was driven by his desire to fight criminality, Arkady said. 'Why did I decide to collect tattoos? Knowing the secret symbols and criminal ways of communication gives you a chance to fight them. When you see a tattoo, you can learn a lot about its owner. 

'It is a great help for an investigator. He immediately knows this man was in jail. And an ordinary person can also learn important information, for example, to recognise a thief or a rapist. Only Russian prisoners value tattoos so highly, treat it like signs of honours, like awards. They are proud of their criminal past.

'There are true artists among tattoo makers, they are able to copy world renown artists. 

'Criminals with authority often have 'Sistine Madonna' or Leonardo's Madonnas. If only those artists of the Renaissance times could know that their masterpieces one day would be pricked with urine on sweaty tummies in Russian jails...'

Russia's leading expert on criminal tattoo
'Only Russian prisoners value tattoos so highly, treat it like signs of honours, like awards'. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya


Bronnikov told us: 'Apart from information about the number of jail terms, we can learn what the prisoner was jailed for, his position in the criminal world. Criminals with authority, especially crowned thieves, put stars under their collarbones. Stars on the knees mean: 'I will never go on my knees in front of the law'.

'When reading a tattoo, it is very important where exactly at the body it is located.'

His books on the subject contain maps to help understand the meanings of the tattoos based on where they are located on the body. 

'Some general rules: crosses often depict the thief's level of authority. Thiefs are the ones ruling in jails, not murderers.

'Tattoos with knives mean those jailed for hooliganism. Tattoos with beasts - lions, wolves, tigers - mean those jailed for violent robberies. Spiders and syringes indicate drug users.

'The church is another frequent symbol, the number of domes means the number of jail terms, just like rings. Often they have to add extra domes, even though they do not look right for the design.

'There is a lot of text in tattoos. For example, 'Damn those who decided to improve a man with the help of jail' or 'Jail is not a school and prosecutor is not a teacher'.'

Russia's leading expert on criminal tattoo
Arkady Bronnikov, 89, Russia's leading expert of prisoners' tattoos. Picture: Vera Salnitskaya


Getting the prison tattoo etiquette wrong can have devastating consequences for criminal.

'Some people do not know these rules and make tattoos, and it may have bad consequences,' he said. 'One sailor from Arkhangelsk decided to tattoo the image of a naked woman in his hip. In jail a picture of an undressed woman on the back or the hips means those who have been buggered. One day at the beach a group of ex-prisoners spotted him and invited him 'to be a lady'. 'Of course he got furious - and then was beaten to death.'

'It is normal to picture a girl on your chest, but not on your back or hips.'

Those with tattoos of Madonna and baby Jesus 'mean the prisoner has been in jail since an early age.

'Fetters and bracelets can be made only for those who were jailed for longer than 5 years. Within the last 15 years, prisoners are massively making Nazi symbols and Hitler portraits. You can make conclusions yourself.'

Russia's leading expert on criminal tattoos


Russia's leading expert on criminal tattoos
Some general rules: crosses often depict the thief's level of authority. Thiefs are the ones ruling in jails, not murderers'. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya


The tattoos could depict 'the number of jail terms, their length, place in thieves community, attitude to law enforcement, traits of character, religion, sexuality, place in criminal hierarchy and even IQ level'.

Arkady Bronnikov told about the tariff for tattoos in Soviet times. In 1982, the cheapest tattoo was a ring, costing 3 roubles ($2 according to 1982 dollar to rouble rate). A small picture on a shoulder, hip or chest was 5-7 roubles, a more complex image with art elements or text was priced at 15-25 roubles. A tattoo involving the bible or an historic event, or icon, could be as expensive as 60 roubles. 

'It was possible to pay the tattoo artist with goods or services. The experienced artist would have a catalogue of his works and the pictures of his best work.'

Russian's leading expert on criminal tattoo


Russian's leading expert on criminal tattoo


Russian's leading expert on criminal tattoo
'When I photographed a tattoo, I always asked a prisoner what it meant, then checked this meaning in other sources.' Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya


Tattoos for women are different, and they use different symbols, Arkady explained.

'Usually women prisoners have tattoos but smaller ones and the quality is not so good. 'There are not such good 'pricking' experts like there are in male jails. If there is a big artistic tattoo, it was made either before of after the jail term.'

Bronnikov said: 'Women tattoos are a special group. Vast majority of women tattoos are devoted to love and faithfulness. It can be a camomile with a name of beloved person, a heart pierced with an arrow, a couple of doves, two shaking hands with text 'beloved one, meet me soon'.

'Apart from those, women in their tattoos express their feelings to family and their wish to be free soon - they make watches, a swallow bird with a letter, a woman flying on a bird. Memorable dates are also common, in the shape of crosses or graves with text.

'It is more common for women tattoo to contain information about repentance, it can be a text too.

'One woman had the date of her first jailing tattooed on her gum'. 

Russia's leading expert on criminal tattoo


Russia's leading expert on criminal tattoo


Russia's leading expert on criminal tattoo
Arkady Bronnikov pictured during his Soviet Army days and now in his flat in Perm, Urals. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya


Not that making tattoos in prison is legal, but, still, it happens. 

'It is forbidden to make tattoos in jails. Despite of this, they were doing it and they are doing it. And all this is going on in totally unhygienic conditions. 

'They do not have special ink there. The substance was and is done in the same way: they burn a piece of rubber and add urine of the man for whom the tattoo is being made. They draw a picture and prick it. It is very painful but a thief with authority can't live without tattoos.

Arkady's in-depth knowledge has attracted the attention of foreign law enforcement experts. 

'About 350,000 Russians are living in London now and many of them have a criminal past,' he said, explaining that experts from Interpol came to visit him in the Urals to understand his knowledge of tattoos. 

'Of course they want to know if it is possible to pinpoint them.' 

Russia's leading expert on criminal tattoos


Russia's leading expert on criminal tattoos
'Tattoos with knives mean those jailed for hooliganism. Tattoos with beasts - lions, wolves, tigers - mean those jailed for violent robberies. Spiders and syringes indicate drug users'. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya


Arkady photographed the tattoos only if the inmates agreed. 

'I never forced anybody, but explained I needed to collect pictures of their tattoos for scientific purposes.

'According to the rules of the criminal world, it is forbiddedn to cooperate with investigators. Prisoners often could not make up their minds if talking to me as a collector of tattoos was against the rules or not.

'When I photographed a tattoo, I always asked a prisoner what it meant, then checked this meaning in other sources.'

Kim Il-sung (2nd from the right, 1st row) served in Soviet Army with Bronnikov, along with Peng Dehuai, Chinese Minister of Defense (2nd from left)
Arkady's army friends - Kim Il-Sung (front row, 2nd from the right) and Peng Dehuai, Chinese Minister of Defense (front row, 2nd from the left). Picture: Vera Salnitksaya


Bronnikov said: 'My personal attitude to tattoos is strictly negative. It is bad for one's health, it hurts the skin, and in unhygienic conditions, where tattoos are normally made, can lead to serious diseases like syphilis or HIV. 

'And in our culture there have always been negative attitudes to tattoos. The Orthodox church is against them.'

He lectured for more than a quarter of a century on criminal science at the Perm Department of the USSR Interior Ministry Academy, and among his students were eight graduates who went to hold the rank of general.

He joined the Red Army in 1943 aged 17 and trained as an air assault soldier, being sent straight to the front. 

He was among only 10% of his squadron who survived the war. 

Russia's leading expert on criminal tattoos


Russia's leading expert on criminal tattoos


Russia's leading expert on criminal tattoos
Arkady Bronnikov's wife Antonina. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya


In 1950 he was sent to serve in Taimyr peninsula in Siberia, to build an airport. 

'It was harder there than in war times. The climate was terrible, there was ice inside our barrack all the year round, winter temperatures went down to minus 65 C,' recalled Bronnikov.

'It must have been easier to build pyramids in Egypt than an airport in permafrost area.'

It was here he first came across prisoners who made up 90% of the labour force: with no means of escape.

Bronnikov's elder son Vladimir who was born in Taimyr also served in police. After 17 years of service, he was badly beaten undertaking his duties and his spine was broken. He now walks on crutches. 

His younger son Evgeniy was beaten to death in the street when trying to save a girl from rapists.

Comments (6)

Fascinating subject and dedicated to his work man makes great article.
Greg, Poland
21/01/2016 17:36
0
0
Fascinating!
Paul Webster, Toronto Canada
15/01/2016 08:06
0
0
The story of the tattoos was interesting but even more interesting was reading about this fine man, his family and his dedication to his work.
MargTaylor, Australia
25/12/2015 17:47
2
1
I have great respect for the Russian people, who are very good engineers, and who struggle through adversity to success.
The entire penal system needs to change, as the current one trains career criminals and gang members.

Ideally ALL prisoners should be in solitary, with wide band internet connection to educational material. Family members should also be able to have face to face video chat with the prisoner and a limited number of approved people. To make this easier on bandwidth, prisoners should walys be in jail in their home town.
Criminal co-conspirators would not be allowed in the comm loop. All calls recorded, but only reviewed in case of problems.

This would prevent the prison becoming a school for convicts, and solitary would stop the tattoo cult.
Bill Jackson, Toronto, Canada
25/12/2015 08:26
3
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Thank you to the Siberian Times, Olga Gertcyk and Vera Salnitskaya for bringing us this incredible story of culture, toughness and service.
Marco Rosini, Brescia, Italy
23/12/2015 21:16
9
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interesting story. though his personal live is a mess. poor parents. on son beaten to death. another on crutches.to show civil courage is indeed not always easy.
Benedikt, Moscow,Russia
21/12/2015 13:32
19
1
1

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