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19th Century Portraits

History of St. Petersburg Museum: Rumyantsev Mansion

 

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, Dec. 20


The citys Babushkina Park on Prospekt Obukhovskoy Oborony will be invaded by dozens of rocking-and-rolling Santa Clauses during todays Santa Claus Parade. Not only will they parade through the park but there will also be competitions amongst the festively-clad participants and a musical master class. There will also be a prize for the best-dressed Santa Claus.


Add to your record collection during the Vinyl Christmas Sale at the KL10TCH bar on Konyushennaya Ploshchad today. Spend the afternoon perusing the records for sale while listening the classic, clean sound of records spinning out hits from a variety of musical genres and time periods.



Sunday, Dec. 21


The Zenit St. Petersburg basketball team returns to the northern capital this evening for a matchup with Krasny Oktyabr, a Volgograd-based basketball club. Tickets for the game, which tips off at 6 p.m. this evening, can be purchased on the clubs website or at their arena, Sibur Arena, on Krestovsky island.


Satisfy your sugar cravings during Sweet New Year, an ongoing seasonal festival at the Raduga shopping center. Each weekend of December will welcome hungry visitors to taste hundreds of different kinds of desserts made from a plethora of sweet treats. Workshops are open to visitors and seasonal gifts can also be purchased for those rushing to finish their New Year shopping.



Monday, Dec. 22


Pick out the latest fashions as holiday gifts for loved ones or as early presents for yourself during the Christmas Design Sale at Kraft on Obvodny Kanal, starting on Dec. 20 and continuing through Dec. 27. Designer clothes will be on sale every day of the week or you can buy something more festive to decorate the home while sipping on hot coffee and perusing the various master classes.



Tuesday, Dec. 23


Meet Arctic explorers Fedor Konukhov and Viktor Simonov during SPIBAs and Capital Legal Services event Arctic Expedition this morning in the Mertens House business center at 21 Nevsky Prospekt. The meeting will discuss the explorers ongoing eco-social project and how companies can use the project as a unique marketing opportunity. Email office@spiba.ru by Dec. 22 if you wish to attend.



Wednesday, Dec. 24


The Anglican Church of St. Petersburg we will be holding a Christmas Eve service at 7 p.m. led by Rev Wm. Shepley Curtis of the Episcopal Church. The service will be held at the Swedish Church at 1/3 Malaya Konyushennaya Ulitsa.



To have your event included in All About Town, email tot@sptimes.ru



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