Going to your local swimming pool these days is like visiting a tattoo convention. Every Tom, Dick, and Sally has got ink, from tacky little kanji to vast, torso-spanning masterpieces. You can even see them snaking out of shirts and up the necks and wrists of respectable hipsters. Tattoos have well and truly gone mainstream.

But it wasn’t always this way. Tattoos used to signify stuff – and most of the time that stuff was scary.

Take the soviet criminal underworld. Like the yakuza, this massive illicit organization used tattoos to communicate information about what the wearer had achieved during his life of crime. 

For instance, a person wearing a tattoo of a knife piercing a throat was a killer (the soviets didn’t go in for subtlety). The number of drops of blood, meanwhile, corresponded with the number of victims. 

As such, soviet tattoos were constantly changing to reflect the life circumstances of the criminals who wore them, their stories etched onto their bodies in inky tapestries of delinquency. 

4 real

Because of the important role that tattoos played in the criminal world, fraudulent ink was severely punished. If you wanted one of those natty throat-piercing tattoos, you had to make sure you’d killed someone first, or risk having some incensed thugs scrub or slice the offending flesh from your body. 

Times change (phew!), and with the fall of the Soviet Union tattoos become more widespread and lost their symbolic meanings. But there’s still a way you can enjoy them in their original form.

Soviet Criminal Tattoo is a fascinating and fun new app that lets you exchange these criminal tattoos with your friends in the infinitely safer form of emojis. The app gives you the entire language of soviet tattoos to communicate with in the safety of your own phone space. 

According to the App Store description, Soviet Criminal Tattoo, “[transmogrifies] digital communication into the next landmark of metamodernism”.  

If you know what that means, good luck to you. But don’t worry if you don’t – the app is a blast either way. Download it now on the App Store.