One of the largest, if not the largest, collection of Russian prison tattoo photos has recently been published by Fuel in the 256-page hardcover Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files. The 180 photographs are just a sample of the thousands collected by Arkady Bronnikov during his 30 years as a senior expert in criminalistics at the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs. According to Fuel, as part of his duties, Bronnikov visited many correctional institutions of the Ural and Siberia regions where he interviewed, gathered information and took photographs of convicts; he also regularly helped solve criminal cases across Russia by using his collection of tattoos to identify culprits and corpses.
Text offering more information on the symbolism behind the tattoos are included in the book as well as a 48-page section printed on pink paper with texts, mug shots and criminal profiling. View more photos here.
Vice interviewed Damon Murray, co-founder of FUEL, to talk about the book. Here's a taste:
In London, there will be an exhibition of photographs from the Arkady Bronnikov collection at the Grimaldi Gavin gallery at 27 Albemarle Street, October 17th to November 21, 2014.
The book is sold exclusively on the Fuel site for 20BP (approx. $32 US).
We survived yet another holiday, rather unscathed albeit with lighter wallets. Sucked into the consumer industrial complex, we have fulfilled our shopping list for friends and family. Now it's time to treat ourselves. Our Holiday Gift Guide has been filled with goodness from largely indie designers and artisans, and for this last Guide posting, we want to give a shout out to these tradespeople who help keep Needles+Sins running.
An advertiser who has been getting a lot of media attention is MIR Russian Criminal Tattoo Apparel, not just for their sexy clothing but for the info they offer on all the tattoo designs featured on their shirts, dresses, jackets and accessories. Check out their newest ShtrafBat military line.
Offering an extensive selection of plugs and ear stretching jewelry at a low cost is Ear Gauges, run by a group of people who are a part of our community looking to promote safe and beautiful body adornment. [I'm wearing their organic spotted wood plugs right now.] Also check their forums on healing and aftercare.
And of course we love our trouble makers Father Panik Industries, who have been kicked out and banned from a number of indie markets for their blasphemy, particularly in the form of their brass knuckle rosaries. Their latest rosary piece is the hand-carved, sterling silver tattoo machine charm on semi-precious stones shown above.
So hit them up and show some self-love for making it through another Festivus.
Very cool to find BoingBoing's feature on MIR, the Russian criminal tattoo fashion company and Needles & Sins advertisers. [Many of you thought it was cool too, and we thank you for sending in the link.] In that post, co-owner Roman Belenky discusses his experience growing up in Russia surrounded by the tattoos and what inspired him to start the clothing line, which I thought was pretty interesting. Here's a taste from that part:
I was working in a tattoo shop and started noticing more and more people were coming in with the [Russian Criminal Tattoo] Encyclopaedia and asking to get an image from the books. We turned them away mostly because the shop was owned by Russians and we didn't think it was a good idea to tattoo most of the stuff from the books on someone that knows close to nothing about that world and sub-culture. At that time I thought it would be cool if I could offer those people a T-shirt with the image as a sort of "consolation prize." Plus a part of me also wanted to spread this fascinating Russian underground art to more people.On MIR's site and on their Etsy pages, they offer explanations of each design, although some like the one below don't really need much explaining. What the BoingBoing article doesn't mention is their new SHTRAFBAT military-inspired line where most of the items are vintage or reconstructed military surplus clothing silk screened or altered with the Russian designs. You can hit them up by clicking the banner of the right.
With the new Russian mob doc, Thieves By Law, causing some buzz at the Tribeca Film festival, criminal tattoos are back on the A List. Inspired by their symbolism, The Daily Tribeca came up with their own tattoo interpretations for the "Hollywood Gulag" with a little help from NYC tattooist Daniel Albrigo. It made me giggle.
Check Gawker for the larger version of this illustrated guide.
Having just written about Holocaust tattoos, I became curious about forced tattooing beyond Auschwitz. Hitler created nothing. His greatest evil was applying ancient barbaric practices to his time. Mass murder, extermination camps, frenzied national pride and race-baiting are tools of the past. So, too, is forced tattooing.
Scholars argue whether the branding of concentration camp victims was an organizational tool, meant only to expedite his far greater crimes, or if it was part of the victimization. Indeed, the process of tattooing to differentiate, degrade and dehumanize is a practice as ancient as the beginning of religion itself.
Imagine yourself in Rome. Your Emperor is sleeping with his horse, quite literally, and drinking virgin blood out of a golden goblet. You, on the other hand, are living in squalor, burning in the unrelenting sun and suffering the perversions of poverty. So, you steal, and if caught, you are tattooed as punishment, permanently marked as a criminal. As Maarten Hesselt van Dinter writes on Mundurucu.com of forced tattooing:
"Their purpose was control and they were used to identify gladiators, soldiers, prisoners and slaves. Tattooing specific groups with clearly visible signs made monitoring their movements easier. From the fourth century, Roman recruits were tattooed with the emblems of their units. Apart from their administrative use, according to Plato, tattoos were also used as punishment. Another reason was humiliation."
Read more of Maarten's writing on tattoo history worldwide (with images and designs) in his brilliant book The World of Tattoo: An Illustrated History.
The same occurred in the 17h century of Japan, where serious criminals were marked on their arms and foreheads with various symbols representing their crimes and places of origin.
The same has happened forever amongst warring tribes of native peoples about which our own scholarship only prevents us from truly recognizing the power they conveyed through forced corporal manipulation.
Even when the criminal classes began to adopt their markings as signs of status, the punishment of forced tattooing remained. Russian inmates, most notable of all prisoners for their extensive and evolved physical hieroglyphics, would brand informants, snitches and homosexuals with unwanted tattoos. Say what you will about criminals, but many have a rigid moral order and a strong sense of visiting justice upon those who violate it. That they choose to use tattoos to stigmatize is proof of its power.
In the last few years and much closer to home, there has been a very public increase in acknowledging the forced inking against marginalized and under protected minorities. THIS STORY from Singapore, and THIS STORY from China describe tattooing as a form of domestic violence. THIS STORY describes an instance of child abuse that is not rare enough.
And so the practice continues, in our jails and neighbors' homes, taking what we celebrate as art and debasing it as infliction.
This post is not meant as a comprehensive academic overview, but a brief look at tattoo history that is not decorative but punitive. Those with more information on forced tattooing are welcome to share their thoughts in the comments.
First up in the N+S Holiday Gift Guide are local Brooklyn, NYC clothing designers who pay tribute to tattoos of the prison kind.
Check out Russian Criminal Tattoo apparel.
Roman Belenky, co-owner of the company, whose father bares marks from his own time as a prisoner in Russia, has redrawn many of the traditional symbols from the 50s and 60s and exhibits them on quality American Apparel tees, hoodies, and dresses. Roman is quick to point out on his Etsy store that none of the designs are affiliated with any criminal organization or code. So you won't get your ass kicked in Brighton Beach.
The coolest part is that the stories behind the designs are found on each product page. For example, the Lenin portrait with BOP underneath comes with this explanation:
"This particular one was a popular anti-authority tattoo but it has double meaning as do many other tattoos from that era. The letters underneath Lenin spell VOR, the Russian word for thief (which Lenin definitely was). But the letters are also an acronym that stand for Leader of October Revolution. So if an inmate was hassled by administration, he could always state that he was just really patriotic."
I have the "Free Woman" dress in black symbolizing "a woman that did not belong to any gang and followed only her own rules inside and outside of prison." It washes great and the silk-screening stays fresh.
You can custom make your own Russian Criminal Tattoo clothes as well. Check out the designs available here, choose a fave or faves and the item you want them on, and you'll get a price quote back.
And the prices are VERY reasonable, especially considering they print on American Apparel. Tees will run you about $20, dresses $35, and hoodies (front, back and sleeve design) for $50.
For design, quality, price and cool concept, Russian Criminal Tattoo apparel is our first Holiday Gift Guide pick.
* Alix Lambert's The Mark of Cain DVD
* Also by Lambert, Russian Prison Tattoos paperback