Russian Criminal Tattoos:
A Lexicon of Crime
Russian Criminal Tattoos: A Lexicon of Crime is drawn from a remarkable archive comprising photographs and drawings of Russian criminal tattoos, collected by Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell of the graphic design and publishing company FUEL. These tattoos were recorded for police use to further the understanding of the language of the markings and to act as an aid in the identification and apprehension of criminals in the field.
The 34 photographs selected by Greg Hobson and Tim Clark for Russian Criminal Tattoos: A Lexicon of Crime are taken by Sergei Vasiliev and Arkady Bronnikov. A photojournalist working for the Vecherny Chelyabinsk newspaper, Vasiliev photographed Russian prisoners between between 1989-93 in prisons and reform settlements across Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, Perm and St. Petersburg. Bronnikov is regarded as Russia’s leading expert on tattoo iconography. In the early 1950s he studied at the Moscow Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union where he later worked as a local police inspector. In 1963 he became Professor of Criminalistics at the Perm Faculty of the Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where he worked until 1991. During this time he collected thousands of photographs of tattooed prisoners across the Soviet Union, as well as taking photographs for use by the authorities.
The practice of tattooing in prisons was forbidden by the authorities and was conducted in secret. The tattoos were applied in a rudimentary, often dangerous manner: machines were modified from electric shavers, needles from sharpened guitar stings, while ink was made by mixing scorched rubber and urine. More elaborate tattoos took years to complete, even small markings might require five to six hours of painful and exacting work.
The tattoos carried enormous significance. As well as determining a prisoner’s ‘rank’ within the criminal world, they might also be forcibly applied to lower an inmate’s status. This could be the result of losing at cards, or to mark them out as an informer or rapist. The tattoos of a ‘thief in law’ (vor v zakone) commanded respect, showing that he followed the ‘understandings’ (ponyatiya) a code of honour among professional criminals. When any new convict entered a cell, he was asked, “Do you stand by your tattoos?” If he couldn’t answer – or if word reached the other inmates that he was wearing a ‘false’ tattoo – he would then be given a piece of glass or a brick and be told to remove it, or face the consequences. That could be a severe beating, rape, or even death.
The resulting photographs are compelling yet unsettling. Their austere composition is at odds with the delicate artistry on the prisoners bodies, whose apparent vulnerability before the camera belies the criminal horrors, hierarchies and personal preferences revealed in the tattoos’ secret codes. A dagger through the neck indicates that a criminal has murdered someone in prison and is available to hire for further ‘wet work’; drops of blood can signify the number of murders committed and a snake around the neck connotes drug addiction.
Every image also discloses evidence of an inmate’s character, by turns aggressive, vunerable, melancholic or conceited. Their bodies display an unofficial history, told not just through tattoos, but also in scars and missing digits. The photographs are simultaneously public and private. While the tattoo language communicates privately between criminals, their bodies are laid bare, becoming public property, open to scrutiny and decoding.
Curated by Tim Clark and Greg Hobson
Russian Criminal Tattoos: A Lexicon of Crime
8 – 23 September
Tuesday – Saturday 11am-6pm
The Gallery at the Old Fire Station