Part 2: Nikolai, Russian Prison Tattoo Artist

Con’t from Part 1: – We cannot show his Nikolai’s face, remember, as he fears for his life by talking about the Russian underground, while inside he had a relatively comfortable experience, tattooing the big bosses and the upper echelon of criminals. Though he was able to live a better life inside thanks to tattooing, Nikolai did have to endure harassment by prison officials. All his tattoo machines were constantly being confiscated, so he started carrying his machines in his sleeves. When they were taken during regular searches, he had to make new ones. Every master makes his instruments individually and never lets them fall into any stranger’s hands. During his six years of imprisonment, Nikolai made about 200 machines.

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– The prison tattoo machines can be of four types. The most widely used (up to 90% of all works done) is made of a mechanical razor (photos a & b) and functions like a sewing machine. Tattoos are made quickly and clearly, with the ability to make half-tones. A faster machine can be made from an electric razor, but it is rarely used because it needs electricity and runs too quickly.


Nikolai demonstrates how to 'refresh' a tattoo.
Nikolai demonstrates how to ‘refresh’ a tattoo.

– If there is no chance to get a mechanical razor, hand-made instruments are used. One of them Nikolai calls “utka” – the “duck.” It’s made of two #2 guitar strings, the result being something of a pen holding a drop of India ink. After sharpening, the strings are fixed to­gether and the instrument is ready – you can dip it in India ink and start piercing the skin. 5-8% of all work is executed by this instrument. The qua­lity is much higher than a mechanical machine, but the procedure is very labor-intensive. A tattoo done by an “utka” will take a whole month, but the same tattoo can be done with a machine in just one or one and a half hours.

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Barbed wire on the foot. 6 barbs is a variant of 6 domes, i.e. 6 years of conviction. Inscrip­tion- “Whole youth”.

– The next type of a hand-made instrument is called “moika” (derivative of the word “to wash”). It’s made out of a piece of safety razor blade, and the tattoo is made by making slight cuts to the skin and pouring in black India ink. Nikolai calls himself a specialist in this instrument.

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LEFT: Tattoo of Saint Nicholas. “This is my saint, the one I believe in.” He explains, “From time immemorial the religious theme was spread very strongly among criminals.” RIGHT: Eagle holding the skull means penal article for hooliganism, the so called “baklanka” (deri­vative of the Russian slang word “baklan” – “buff-guy”). The knife doesn’t go through the skull – there was no murder. Cards mean articles of conviction.

– And the last variant is a punch. It consists of a piece of thick rubber where the needles are inserted along the outline of the picture. With a single strike, the pic­ture’s outline is put on the body at once, and then immediately, India ink is poured in. This method is somewhat outdated, and the punch has long since dropped out of use in Belarus.

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Gypsy woman. Symbol of Fate, road to the “state house” , i.e. prison.

A large number of ball-point pen drawings on paper are passed from hand to hand in each detachment. These drawings are double-sided and are used as stencils. After the skin has been shaved, it is moistened by a mixture of water and soap and the drawing is brought down onto the skin, leaving an imprint. The stencil is light and the tattoo is quickly outlined. Later on it is re-outlined with a thicker and darker line.

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The India ink used is predominately industrial; they get it from the outside by hook or by crook. But if it is not available, a rubber sole is burnt out, and the soot is ground and mixed with sugar and ashes, then diluted in urine for disinfection.

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When healing a tattoo, the scab which forms on the second day must not be touched or stripped off for 7-10 days, despite the fact that the tattooed spot itches a lot. If the scab is picked off before this time, the tattoo will be spotty. Such work is considered low-grade and cannot be redone. But if healed properly, in seven days you can go to the baths and safely rub this spot – nothing will happen now.

After the tattoo has healed, there is the last stage: the “refreshment.” This is when the tattooer goes over the tattoo and improves the quality of his handiwork. On the whole, as Nikolai says, “The principle is simple: you made a contour – washed off, put a shade – washed off. That’s all.”


For ten years, Nikolai has been “without jail”. He is free now and his main occupation is still tattooing. He says there is enough work for him.

By Valery Sibrikov

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*This article originally appeared in Tattoo Artist Magazine #16. Screen shot 2015-10-15 at 9.35.27 AM

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