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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

Wednesday, Oct. 1


The St. Petersburg International Innovation Forum 2014 kicks off today at Lenexpo, where it will be presenting the latest and greatest ideas until Oct. 3. Focusing on economic development and the decisions and measures necessary to encourage development in Russias most important industries, the event is a possibility to discuss the innovations currently available in a variety of fields.


Representatives of the Russian and international media industries arrive in St. Petersburg for the first ever International Media Forum being hosted by the city until Oct. 10. With a variety of events on tap, including workshops, lectures and film screenings, the event plans to reemphasize the citys reputation as the countrys culture capital and as an emerging market and location for the visual arts.



Thursday, Oct. 2


The celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of Mikhail Lermontov continues with todays free exhibition in the citys Lermontov Library at 19 Liteiny Prospekt. Titled Under the Rustling Wings, the temporary exhibition will feature the costumes and scenery used in the 1917 production of Lermontovs play The Masquerade, which he wrote in 1835 when he was only 21 years old.



Friday, Oct. 3


Learn more about how to manage and evaluate employee performance during SPIBAs Human Resources Committee meeting this morning on Employee Assessment: Global and Local Trends. Starting at 9:30 a.m., the discussion will touch on such topics as the partnership between HR and business, reliable assessment strategies and more, with Tatiana Andrianova, the head of the SHL Russia and CIS branch in St. Petersburg, as the featured guest. Confirm your participation by Oct. 2 by emailing office@spiba.ru or calling 325 9091.


AmChams Procurement Committee Meeting is at 9 a.m. this morning in their office in the New St. Isaac Office Center on Ulitsa Yakubovicha.



Saturday, Oct. 4


Wine and cheese lovers will get their chance to revel during Scandinavia Country Club and Spas Wine Market Weekend. Going on today and tomorrow, wining diners can listen to live music, take part in culinary classes and, of course, sample a variety of fine wines from around the world. The cost of admission is 400 rubles ($10.30) for adults and 200 rubles ($5.15) for children.



Sunday, Oct. 5


Look for the latest fall fashions at the Autumn Market today in Freedom Anticafe at 7 Kazanskaya Ulitsa. The minimarket plans to offer clothes more flattering than the puffy jackets that are a staple of the citys cold-weather fashion, while offering the same amount of protection from the biting winds blowing off of the Baltic.



Monday, Oct. 6


SKA St. Petersburg, the citys KHL affiliate, welcomes Slovakian club HC Slovan in a match-up tonight at the Ice Palace near the Prospekt Bolshevikov metro station. The puck drops at 7:30 p.m. and tickets can be purchased on the clubs website or in person at either the arenas box office or the clubs merchandise store on Nevsky Prospekt.



Tuesday, Oct. 7


Learn more about Russias energy industry at the St. Petersburg Energy Forum that begins today and runs through Oct. 10. Attracting industry experts and political and business representatives, the forum plans to welcome more than 350 plus companies and their representatives to discuss the future of Russias largest economic sector.



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