Tattoos… Love ’em, hate ’em, everybody has an opinion, and everybody who has one has a reason. Maybe it’s to mark a special event. Maybe it’s because the design has particular meaning to the person who wears it. One way or another, though, body art fascinates.
When Nicki and I began writing Under the Skin, we delved into the world of Russian prison tattoos and their significance, particularly among the Russian mob, the vory v zakone. Sociologists began noting the development of the tradition of tattoos in Russian prisons and gulags in the 1920s, although they have no real idea when it actually began because at that point, the tattoos and their meanings were already highly developed and symbolic. Unlike tattoos for the simple purpose of marking events, though, the Russian tattoos proclaim a prisoner’s background and status within the prison (as well as the mob) hierarchy, often in ironic or even rebellious ways. (A snake around the neck says the wearer feels Communism is strangling him.)
We were then faced with creating a criminal history for Alexei and tracing it onto his body. In a particularly poignant scene, Patrick, who knows nothing of the symbolism of the tattoos, asks Alexei about his tattoos.
“Tell me about one of them.” His hand settled again on the cross that adorned Alexei’s chest. “What about this one?”
Recognizing that Patrick’s persistence was one of the traits that had likely led to his rising to detective as quickly as he had, Alexei had not really expected the policeman to let the issue drop. Exhaling slowly, he tucked a hand under his head, staring at the low ceiling. “It means thief,” he conceded, keeping the other, darker meaning to himself. “Master thief.”
“So it is a mark of honor,” Patrick commented slowly, his voice carefully neutral as he reminded himself that Alexei came from a very different world. “And the others? Are they marks of honor as well?”
Alexei shrugged a shoulder, frowning. “Nothing you would consider honor,” he answered.
The answer was much as Patrick feared it would be. “I know you have a checkered past,” he said after a moment’s pause. “I knew that the first time we met. I accepted it before I ever let you touch me.” Closing his eyes, he tried to remember the other tattoos he had seen. “The Madonna,” he suggested, thinking such a symbol of purity would surely be innocuous, maybe even redeeming. “What does she mean?”
“It tells that I have been a thief—a criminal—since I was a child,” Alexei answered shortly, hoping Flaherty did not plan to ask him the meaning of every one of his marks. If he asked, Alexei would answer—Patrick deserved to know the truth about the man he had chosen to risk his professional career, if not his life, to be with.
Patrick flinched at the answer, trying to imagine the world that celebrated such madness. “The church?” he wondered aloud, having seen the domed edifice that covered Alexei’s back on more than one occasion as his lover prepared to leave him.
“Means prison,” Alexei rasped. “Three domes say I have been in prison three times.”
Needless to say, Patrick wasn’t happy with the rest of Alexei’s explanations either.
For more information on Russian prison tattoos, here are some interesting links: http://www.phaseloop.com/foreignprisoners/exp-russian_tats.html
Or simply do a search for Russian prison tattoos in Google images. The artwork is stunning, if grim, and the stories behind the art are chilling.
Be sure to check out Under the Skin, by Ariel Tachna and Nicki Bennett, available now from Dreamspinner Press.