Tattooing is strictly forbidden in Russia's prisons and labor camps, the ones that evolved from Stalin's gulags. And yet in Russian prison culture criminal tattoos abound, acting as their own kind of tribal language -- complex, secretive, and deeply meaningful. In this world, the tattoo is not simply linear, but volumetric and multidimensional. Tattoos can incorporate the most varied signs, including verbal, representational, allegorical, and symbolic. In this way, the prisoners' bodies become pictorial timelines, tableaux of the past, present, and future. More than mere markings, the ink-on-skin drawings volunteer information about sexual orientation or how many terms a prisoner has served; they tell tales of past crimes, future plans, and of heartbreak and distrust. Perhaps most importantly, they signal to other criminals (often openly) of the wearer's position within the prison hierarchy.
In the recently released Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Postcards, the fourth volume in a long-running collection, photographs of these prisoners are paired with a series of drawings which act as a decoder of sorts, detailing the once-secret meaning of these very tattoos. The photographs are the work of Sergei Vasiliev, shot between 1989 and 1993 in prisons and reform settlements from Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, Perm, and St. Petersburg. The drawings were done by Danzig Baldaev during his time as a prison guard at Kresty Prison in St. Petersburg from 1948 to 1986. Baldev would sketch these tattoos directly from prisoners' bodies while taking note of each tattoo and its meaning, returning home from work to redraw each one, making careful study of his subjects, eventually amassing a collection of over 3,000 tattoo drawings.
So central are tattoos to the world of incarcerated Russian criminals that upon the arrival of newcomers to a corrective labor camp or colony, the criminal leaders inside would pose a single question: "Do you stand by your tattoos?"
Above: 1991. Corrective Labor Colony No. 5. Nizhny Tagil, Sverdlovsk Region
In this photo three convicts -- all incarcerated for drug-related crimes -- pose together. The convict on the left wears two symmetrical tattoos, one on each arm: "I live in sin/I die laughing." His torso is covered with demons and monsters that are meant to intimidate the other inmates. The convict in the center has barbed-wire tattooed across his forehead, signifying that he "will never be corrected." On his left arm another tattoo reads, "Hurry up and live" and the ship with full, billowing sails on his forearm means he "lusts for freedom" and that he is a potential escapee. The German scrawled across his chest, Gott mit uns (God with us), was a rallying cry of both the Russian empire and the Third Reich. The convict seen on the right wears a tattoo on his upper arm: "Keep love." The lettering on his forearm reads: KRA or Klyanus Rezat Aktivistov i Blyadey (I swear to kill activists and sluts). The rose tattooed on his shoulder meant that he turned eighteen while in prison.
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volumes I-III, and Postcards are published by FUEL. Captions were written with the assistance of Damon Murray.