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History on skin

Russian convicts used tattoos to express a range of ideas and statements.

Published: February 20, 2009 (Issue # 1450)



  • An image taken from the cover of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, which explores the culture of tattoos among convicts in Russia.
    Photo: Fuel Publications 2008

  • Danzig Baldayev, a guard at St. Petersburgs Kresty Prison, made copies of hundreds of tattoos.
    Photo: Sergei Vasilyev / Fuel Productions 2008

  • Prisoners used tattoos to express anything from their criminal rank to their political ideas.
    Photo: Sergei Vasilyev / Fuel Productions 2008

There is a cliche one too readily employed with regard to contemporary Western culture to the effect that such and such an artist has pushed boundaries or has broken taboos. Most people, if they are honest with themselves, would admit that aesthetic boundaries are exceedingly porous in liberal democracies, where bold statements are more likely to bring accolades than rebukes.

Consider, by way of contrast, the fate of a Russian convict described in Edward Kuznetsovs 1973 Prison Diaries, upon whose forehead prison surgeons operated three times to remove a political tattoo:

The first time they cut out a strip of skin with a tattoo that said Khrushchevs Slave. The skin was then roughly stitched up. After he was released, he tattooed Slave of the USSR on his forehead. Again, he was forcibly operated on to remove it. [The] third time, he covered his whole forehead with Slave of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]. This tattoo was cut out and now, after three operations, the skin is so tightly stretched across his forehead that he can no longer close his eyes.

Russian criminal tattoos have, in some small but significant way, begun to infiltrate and influence the Western creative class ideas of Russia at its most outre. In recent years, they have been depicted in David Cronenbergs film Eastern Promises and in Martin Amis novel of the Great Terror, House of Meetings.

That anyone outside Russia should know anything about the phenomenon is due in no small part to the efforts of Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell, the founders of the London-based publishing and design company, FUEL, which has recently released the third volume of its popular Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia.

In a recent email exchange from London, Murray described how his and Sorrels desire to bring the dark and splenetic, anti-authoritarian aesthetic of the Soviet underworld to English-speaking audiences took shape.

We made a trip to Moscow in February 1992, when we were studying at the Royal College of Art, said Murray. We were producing our FUEL magazine from the college at the time, and it was our intention to produce and print an issue from Moscow, he said.

Each issue was themed around four letter words, and USSR seemed an interesting play on this particularly at a time when Yeltsin had just declared, Everything, everywhere, is for sale, he added.

Murray and Sorrel had an acquaintance working for a Russian publisher who showed them drawings by Danzig Baldayev, a guard at St. Petersburgs Kresty Prison who was also a talented amateur anthropologist and folklorist. Baldayev had made detailed copies of the tattoos of hundreds of prisoners he had encountered.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Saturday, Nov. 1


The men and women who dedicate their lives to fitness get their chance to compete for the title of best body in Russia at todays Grand Prix Fitness House PRO, the nations premier bodybuilding competition. Not only will men and women be competing for thousands of dollars in prizes and a trip to represent their nation at Mr. Olympia but sporting goods and nutritional supplements will also be available for sale. Learn more about the culture of the Indian subcontinent during Diwali, the annual festival of lights that will be celebrated in St. Petersburg this weekend at the Culture Palace on Tambovskaya Ul. For 100 rubles ($2.40), festival-goers listen to Indian music, try on traditional Indian outfits and sample dishes highlighting the culinary diversity of the billion-plus people in the South Asian superpower.



Sunday, Nov. 2


Check out the latest video and interactive games at the Gaming Festival at the Mayakovsky Library ending today. Meet with the developers of the popular and learn more about their work, or learn how to play one of their creations with the opportunity to ask the creators themselves about the exact rules.



Monday, Nov. 3


Non-athletes can get feed their need for competition without breaking a sweat at the Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament this evening at the Cube Bar at Lomonosova 1. Referees will judge the validity of each matchup award points to winners while the citys elite fight for the chance to be called the best of the best. Those hoping to play must arrange a team beforehand and pay 200 rubles ($4.80) to enter.



Tuesday, Nov. 4


Attend the premiere of Canadian director Xavier Dolans latest film Mommy at the Avrora theater this evening. The fifth picture from the 25-year-old, it is the story of an unruly teenager but the most alluring (or unappealing) aspect is the way the film was shot: in a 1:1 format that is more reminiscent of Instagram videos than cinematic art. Tickets cost 400 rubles ($9.60) and snacks and drinks will be available.



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