Russian Criminal Tattoo Exhibit in London
09:06 PM
 russian criminal tattoo.jpg
Photograph taken by Sergei Vasiliev in the early 1990s. [Fuel/Sergei Vasiliev]

In London, Fuel Design, publishers of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia series, will be exhibiting a selection of 120 original drawings by Danzig Baldaev who documented the art and meanings of criminal tattoos--in over 3,000 sketches--during his time as a prison guard between 1948 and 1986. The exhibit also includes photos by Sergei Vasiliev, whose prints will be for sale, including the images shown here.

You can see a sample of the drawings and photographs on Fuel's site.

The Guardian has an article inspired by the exhibit called "Russian Criminal Tattoo: Breaking the Code," which gives some background on Baldaev's life and work, and how Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell of Fuel came to acquire his drawings. It's a pretty compelling story, albeit only touched upon in a short article. I wish the reporter had replaced the few "tattoos of the world" meanings at the end with more on Baldaev and what motivated him to come home to his small apartment after a long day at work and just draw, into the night, the tattoos he saw.

russian prison tattoo design.jpgThe article also discusses the symbolism behind many of the tattoos Baldaev recorded. Here's a taste of that:

In effect, the tattoos formed a service record of a criminal's transgressions. Skulls denoted a criminal authority. A cat represented a thief. On a woman, a tattoo of a penis was the kitemark of a prostitute. Crosses on knuckles denoted the number of times the wearer had been to prison, and a shoulder insignia marked solitary confinement, while a swastika represented not a fondness for fascism but a refusal to accept the rules of prison society.

A criminal with no tattoos was devoid of status, but to have a tattoo when you hadn't earned it - bearing the skull sign of a criminal authority, for example - often resulted in the tattoo being forcibly removed with a scalpel by fellow prisoners. And "grins" (depicting communist leaders in obscene or comical positions) were a way for criminal to put two fingers up at the authorities.

russian criminal tattoo2.jpg Russian Criminal Tattoo Exhibition opens this Friday, October 29th, and runs until November 28th at 4 Wilkes Street, London, 11am-6pm. You can purchase Fuel's Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedias on Amazon.

This facet of tattoo culture is so fascinating to me. I really dig on the hidden symbolism and language contained within. I am curious as to whether the act of tattooing in Russian prisons is illegal like it is here. I would assume so, but it seems SO prevalent. Furthermore, do the authorities know/understand the symbolism behind these images?

I so wish I could go see this exhibition.

Neat stuff!



Check out the documentary Alex Lambert's The Mark of Cain, which is a great intro into the prisons and the tattoos, and follow up with the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedias. It answers a bunch of questions and the documentary provides a glimpse of the life of the prisoners. The encyclopedias were put together from notes of one of prison workers Danzig Baldaev from his files to track and understand the tattoos and their meanings.

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