History on skin
Russian convicts used tattoos to express a range of ideas and statements.
Published: February 20, 2009 (Issue # 1450)
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 Kuznetsov’s 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 ‘Khrushchev’s 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 Cronenberg’s 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 Sorrel’s 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. Petersburg’s 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. Pages:  [2 ]