There’s a lot going on in the tattoo image below, but I’m going to limit myself to the top element, one which you don’t see often in the world of tattooing: a Soviet military medal. Since the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR, no longer exists, it’s probably a type of tattoo that we won’t see much in the future either.
Of course, it isn’t just that Soviet medals are rare as tattoos. While military tattoos of many different types abound, the majority of them don’t involve insignia or awards–which isn’t to say there aren’t any. Many military tattoos revolve around the themes of memorial, comradeship, esprit de corps, and the experiences of the military life and combat.
Then again, not every tattoo drawn from a military context is necessarily a military tattoo. Such may be the case with this month’s image, a design originally created in 1942. The central symbol of this medal is the iconic sickle and hammer of Communism. The sickle represents agricultural workers (or the peasantry) while the hammer represents industrial workers (the proletariat), such that the fusion of the two symbols represents their unity. Golden tools on a field of red, it was part of the flag of the USSR beginning in 1923, shortly after its founding.
A Real Military Honor
The cyrillic lettering that surrounds the sickle and hammer reads Отечественная война or “Otechestvennaya voina” meaning “Domestic War”. The tattoo design is essentially the Award of Domestic War, which might not be what you are thinking. The Award of Domestic War, First Degree (the Second Degree medal has a silver star substituted for the gold) was created to honor soldiers, citizens, and even cities who had opposed the German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II. As opposed to the war of western Europe, the Soviets viewed the German invasion as a war fought on their home or domestic territory. By all accounts, the war on the Eastern front was particularly savage and deadly, with the Soviet Union’s losses estimated at more than 25 million dead.
The red star, also an early symbol of the Soviet Union, backs the central element of the design, as does a metal star and a crossed rifle (with bayonet) and sword. Although the actual military medal uses the rifle and sword pointing upward, the tattoo has them pointing downward, possibly to make sure that they are seen, since the pre-existing wing tattoos would have obscured them (or the tattoo of the medal would need to be higher on the neck or smaller). We might also interpret the upside down rifle and sword as an inversion of their normal meaning, something common in symbology. If the crossed rifle and sword represent the military or victory or aggression, then the inverted rifle and sword might mean loss, peace, or the absence of aggression.
Your Guess and Mine
One point of the star clearly ends in a blood vessel, tying in thematically with the tattoo of the heart. However, it may also be ending in dripping blood, as opposed to one of the undamaged veins. Is it a remembrance of that bloody era and the lives that were lost, in the spirit of the original medal? Is it a protest against the former Soviet Union (it disintegrated in 1991) and its history of violence, particularly against its own people? Could it even be Soviet-era kitsch or retro art? Or might it also be a memorial for a relative who received the award? Whether the tattoo stands as an anti-war symbol, an anti-communism symbol, or even a family memorial is a matter of interpretation which simply can’t be deciphered here. No matter the meaning, however, the symbolism is rich and yet another example of the depths to which tattoo symbols can go and the paths that can lead to them.