Russian criminal tattoos are ornate and political charged works of art. These marks, riven in flesh, de-mark criminal histories and tell a hidden countercultural story of Russian life over the past 100 years. This powerful artistic legacy would have disappeared from living memory was it not for the efforts of ethnographer, prison guard and visionary Danzig Baldaev.
Having been branded the son of an enemy of the people, Baldev was send to an orphanage for children of political prisoners. Later he fought in the second World War, before becoming a prison warden at Kresty prison in St Petersburg. Baldaev spent 33 years of his life recording the tattoos etched on the bodies of prisoners throughout the Russian prison system. Every day he would make quick sketches of the tattoos before returning home to work on them through the night. His life’s work has been condensed into the hefty Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia published by Fuel and the original drawings have gone on show in an exhibition in London for the first time ever.
Baldaev, who died in 2005, regarded his work as a vital history of his country. “As in a mirror, everything this country has gone through has been reflected in prison and camp life.” Featuring sketches and supported by photographs of inmates taken by award winning photographer Sergev Vasilev, this show provides and incredible insight into life at the bottom of the heap in Russian society. In cramped and bleak conditions, with inmates facing hard-line sentences, a highly nuanced range of symbols were developed which told a history of the crimes of each man and woman. At a glance these images would warn you to back down from a confrontation, accord high levels of respect or spot a fellow practitioner. The stories told by the tattoos are of murders, thieves, rapists, but also ideological criminals interned for defacing propaganda posters or defying the party line.
Images of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ speak of a childhood of crime, and Russian cyphers decrying a childhood spent in hunger and poverty point to hard lives lived in a country controlled by totalitarian governments for whom crime became an only option and a form of protest. The earliest tattoos are those bearing the letters 'KAT' – these were jailed in Czarist Russia. Later young criminals would bear these letters out of respect. Other early tattoos are portraits of Lenin and Stalin which were worn on the chest as it was commonly believed that the firing squad would not be able to shoot at the image of their leaders.
Images in the exhibition range from the pornographic to the poetic. Some depict tattoos which subvert traditional poetry and songs in order to satirize the government that had interned them, others bear desperate and poetic messages 'Fate toys with man', 'Life is brief'. Many images are hardcore in their use of pornographic forms. Huge phallus's spring from pigs dressed in military uniform, devils penetrate women, communist leaders spring from between the legs of naked women. These were largely inflicted upon those inmates who had committed sexual crimes, or who had not paid their debts in prison. The story of one prisoner is particularly brutal. He had staked another inmates coat in a game of poker and had lost the game. The prisoner whose coat he had bet was sent to another jail before having time to pay off the bet. In order to repay his debt a huge phallus was tattooed onto his face. Debt re-paid the inmate then burnt the humiliating image off.
The very act of being tattooed was an act of bravado. Application techniques ran from the brutal to the developed. The worst method involved using nails arranged in a crude pattern dipped in ink made from soot and burnt boot heels mixed with blood or urine. It wasn't uncommon for inmates to die of poisoning. More artistic tattoos were created using customised electric razors. Tattooing in prison was not legal, and inmates could have them forcibly removed. In his book Prison Diaries, Edward Kuzetsov tells the story of an inmate who had 'Slave of the USSR' tattooed across his forehead. This was forcibly removed leaving his skin tightly stretched over his skull. Defiant, he had another tattoo applied. This also was removed. Again he had a tattoo applied. Again it was removed leaving his skin so tight he could not close his eyes so earning him the nickname 'The Stare'.
Don't Panic spoke with Curator and book Editor Damon Murray.
How did you find this work?
A friend of ours is a literary agent in Russia and was aware of Baldaev's work. She brought it to our attention. He died in 2005, so his widow was in possession of all the drawings which were largely kept in bin liners and boxes throughout her house. She was relieved when we offered to buy them from her as she was worried that they would go to waste.
Why are you mounting this exhibition?
It's about getting the work seen. It's an extraordinary history of Russia which people in this country aren't aware of. The Russians who I have spoken to about it are not as interested in it as they want to look forward to the future rather than backwards at this hugely turbulent time in history which they would rather forget.
Why is it important to have the exhibition in addition to the book?
The actual objects – his drawings – are different to how they appear in the book. The original sheets are aged and mottled, and become rather like skin themselves. The images are so graphic in the book sitting on their own, there is a different understanding of the work created by seeing the drawings for real, all collected in groups as was originally intended. His skill as a draftsmen really comes through.
A lot of the drawings are very anti-semitic, what other issues come through from the collection?
Yes, the anti-semitism is strong, as is religion, which is interesting as the Soviet government was trying to eradicate religion. There is a really interesting struggle conveyed between belief systems that went against government and those prejudices fed by government. The government was behind the anti-semitism and were pushing a lot of propaganda and purging its bodies of Jewish blood. There are also a lot of sexually explicit images. Many of these were forcibly applied in order to degrade the prisoner if they couldn't pay a debt or as a forfeit.
Are you inked? You might as well know where that tat will get you in a Russian jail:
Spider / Spider Web – Drug User / Addict
Monastery / Church / Castle – A common tattoo representing the bearer’s time insider, the number of towers to the building usually denotes the number of years
Star – The number of points indicates the number of years inside
Cat – The bearer is a thief
Cross – A sign of bondage / a King Thief
Dagger – From the shoulder to the neck means a sex offender, often forcibly given
Virgin Mary holding Christ – The bearer has been a criminal from a young age
Swastika – A lifer
Snake – Points to the bearer feeling strangled by Communism
Eagle – A bandit
Bull – A pimp
Epaulette – The bearer has completed a spell in solitary confinement
The exhibition will run from 30 October-29 November at 4 Wilkes Street, Spitalfields, London E1 6QF. For more information see here