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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

Thursday, Nov. 27


The Customs and Transportation Committee for AmCham meets this morning at 9 a.m. in their office on Ulitsa Yakubovicha.


Tickets are still available for local KHL team SKA St. Petersburgs showdown with Siberian club Metallurg Novokuznetsk tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Ice Palace outside the Prospekt Bolshevikov metro station. Tickets can be purchased on the teams website, at the arena box office or in their merchandise store on Nevsky Prospekt.


Celebrate one of Russian literatures most tragic figures during Blok Days, a two-day celebration of the 134th anniversary of the poets birthday. The tragic tenors work, which led to writer Maxim Gorky to hail him as Russias greatest living poet before his death in 1921, will be recited and meetings and discussions about his contributions to the Silver Age of literature in St. Petersburg will be discussed in the confines of his former residence.



Friday, Nov. 28


Join table game aficionados at the British Book Centers Board Game Evening. Held every Friday at 5 p.m., aficionados and amateurs alike can come take part in a variety of different games that test ones intellect and cunning.



Saturday, Nov. 29


Cats, dogs, birds, rodents and reptiles are just some of the things that will walk and crawl at Lenexpo convention center this weekend as part of Zooshow, a two-day exhibition featuring not only mans best friends but a four-legged fashion show, as well as a food fair that will help pet owners find out more about which kibbles are best for their hungry pets.



Sunday, Nov. 30


Remember the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Russo-Finnish war in 1939 during todays reenactment titled Winter War: How it Was. More than 200 people will take part in recreating the opening salvoes of the battle for the north in Kamenka, a small village situated between Vyborg and St. Petersburg, using authentic equipment and vintage vehicles from the era. The faux battle begins at 2 p.m.



Monday, Dec. 1


Serbia filmmaker Emir Kusturica is the featured guest this evening at the Lensovet Palace of Culture the Petrograd Side. Fans of the director will get the chance to watch his movie Black Cat, White Cat, as well as ask questions about his award-winning filmography. Tickets for the event, which starts at 7 p.m., start at 2,000 rubles ($42.50).



Tuesday, Dec. 2


Today is the final day of Takoy Festival, a three-week program of plays based on the works of Dostoevsky, Remarque and other famed European writers, whose work is transcribed for theatrical performances. Tonights festival finale is Fathers and Sons, a two-act drama staged by the Novosibirsk Academic Drama Theater based on Turgenevs classic about familial relations.



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