“Between 1948 and 1986, during his career as a prison guard, Danzig Baldaev made over 3,000 drawings of tattoos. They were his gateway into a secret world in which he acted as ethnographer, recording the rituals of a closed society. The icons and tribal languages he documented are artful, distasteful, sexually explicit and provocative, reflecting as they do the lives, status and traditions of the convicts that wore them. Baldaev made comprehensive notes about each tattoo, which he then carefully reproduced in his tiny St. Petersburg flat. The resulting exquisitely detailed ink drawings are accompanied with his handwritten notes and signature on the reverse, the paper is yellowed with age, and carries Baldaev’s stamp, giving the drawings a visceral temporality – almost like skin.” ~ Fuel Deisgn
The acronym ‘MIR’ spells the word for ‘peace’ in Russian and stands for ‘Shooting will reform me’.
‘This is what is destroying us!’
This tattoo is widespread in criminal circles. There are several versions, with and without text.
Intricate tattoo from a convict imprisoned ‘because of a woman’.
Translation: ‘Take out bitches, stool-pigeons and traitors!’ The acronym ‘MIR’ spells the word for peace and stands for ‘Shooting will reform me’.
A ‘warrior’s grin’.
‘I love smoking men’s cigarettes’
A youth tattoo known as ‘The Smoker’. Made in a women’s corrective labour camp in Novozybkov, Bryansk Region in 1990.
The acronym stands for ‘If you’re unfaithful, I’ll cut your balls off’.
The tattoo of a criminal ‘authority’.
First recorded in 1954. it was later widespread in the corrective labour institutions of the Urals.
Widespread male eyelid tattoos.
‘Queen’s firm – sotzsupersex’
A prostitute’s tattoo.
Images via The Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive.
The Mark Of Cain • Alex Lambert’s unflinching documentary about Russian criminal tattoos.
“The Mark of Cain documents the fading art form and “language” of Russian criminal tattoos, formerly a forbidden topic in Russia. The now vanishing practice is seen as reflecting the transition of the broader Russian society. Filmed in some of Russia’s most notorious prisons, including the fabled White Swan, the interviews with prisoners, guards, and criminologists reveal the secret language of “The Zone” and “The Code of Thieves” (Vor v zakone).
The Mark of Cain examines every aspect of the tattooing, from the actual creation of the tattoo ink, interviews with the tattooers and soberly looks at the double-edged sword of prison tattoos. In many ways, they were needed to survive brutal Russian prisons, but mark the prisoner for life, which complicates any readmission to “normal” society they may have.”
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