Very interesting article and photo gallery from The New Yorker.
Throughout the Communist era, convicts in the Soviet prison system cultivated a visual language through tattoo art. Their markings, which were often applied by fellow inmates using an adapted electric shaver, were intended to communicate social standing, tastes, and interests to fellow criminals.
From the mid-sixties through the mid-eighties, Arkady Bronnikov, who at the time worked as a criminalistics expert at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, travelled to prisons throughout the Urals and Siberia. Bronnikov photographed inmates’ tattooed bodies and interviewed them about their markings and corresponding criminal records. He learned that a tattoo of a church or a monastery indicated a thief, with the number of cupolas reflecting the number of the inmate’s convictions. A snake encircling one’s neck signalled a drug addiction. His resulting archive, which consists of more than nine hundred photos, helped the ministry to identify criminals and to solve cases across the country.
Retrieved November 23, 2014 from http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/decoding-russian-prison-tattoos