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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, July 24


Liliana Modiliani, a well-known Russian stylist, will talk about choosing clothes that fit during her lecture at 7 p.m. at the Pryamoy Efir art club, 13 Viborgskoe Shosse.



Friday, July 25


Discuss Russias economic and political prospects for 2014 during a Business Breakfast organized by SPIBA at 9.30 a.m. in the Bank Saint-Petersburg office at 64


Malookhtinsky Prospekt.


Start your weekend with adorable miniature pigs at the Squealing Pig festival at 7 p.m. this evening in the Karl & Friedrich restaurant, 15 Iozhnaya doroga, on Krestovsky Island.



Saturday, July 26


Hundreds of brand-new and retro cars, drag and drift shows, test drives and karting are planned for the Avtobum-2014 festival, which will take place in front of the RIO shopping center at 2 Fuchika Ulitsa.


Participants in todays SaniDay Summer competition will impress visitors with their hand-made, unusual and hilarious boats, which will race at the Igora Resort near the 54th kilometer on Priozerskoe Shosse.


Metro Family Day will include both serious lectures for adults and master-classes for children, making the event interesting for the whole family. To participate, come to Kirov Park on Yelagin Island.


Photography will be the focus of todays Photosubbota, which features lectures by famous photographers, meetings with photo schools and studio representatives, and participation in a photography competition. The event starts at noon at Petrokongress, 5 Lodeynopolskaya Ulitsa.


If you like cycling, make sure to visit the Za Velogorod Festival with its retro bike exhibition, market and live music. The second round of the Leningrad Criterium race will also take place during the event at Petrovsky Arsenal in Sestroretsk.



Sunday, July 27


Navy Day will be celebrated with a weapon and military transportation exhibition, self-defense master classes and concerts. The event starts at 1 p.m. in the 300th Anniversary Park of St. Petersburg.



Monday, July 28


Dont miss a chance to see the latest achievements in robotics during the RoboDom interactive show, exhibiting more than 150 robots. The show will be at BUM center, 22/2 Gzhatskaya Ulitsa, until Aug. 3. The entrance ticket costs 350 rubles ($10).



Tuesday, July 29


A video of a Queen concert from 1986 will be shown today at 8 p.m. in Yaschik, 50/13 Ligovsky Prospekt.



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