The marks of a thief-in-law

Brought to popular western culture in the contemporary film Eastern Promises directed by David Cronenberg, and now on display at the Saatchi Gallery in the post-Soviet portraits of Sergei Vasiliev, the tattoo code language of criminals in the USSR had its roots far earlier, in Stalin’s Russia, amongst the thieves-in-law (vory v zakonye) – the elite of the Soviet Union’s criminal class. Formed as a society for ruling the criminal underworld within the prison camps – necessary after Stalin had imprisoned quite so many – the thieves-in-law were utterly dominant, and marked themselves out as vory by the tattoos they wore. These tattoos displayed not only their indifference and contempt for the Stalinist system they lived under, but their defiant resistance to its cruel, repressive and hypocritical nature also. Just as Stalin had made his Communist word law, so the vory would make their criminality law also. The most common symbols of a thief-in-law were: an eight-pointed star, as seen below, worn as an epaulette or on the knee; a lozenge with an Orthodox cross inside, on a ring finger; and, a cat in a hat on the back of the hand. To carry any of the above tattoos and not be a thief-in-law was punishable by death.

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