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"To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It's a way of life." ~ Henri Cartier-Bresson

Friday, September 2, 2011

Photographer Sergei Vasiliev’s Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia

Sergei Vasiliev‘s photographs of Russian Criminal Tattoos are part of a three part encyclopaedia/archive on the subject. Vasiliev photographed in prisons and reform settlements across Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, Perm and St. Petersburg between 1989 and 1993. 

(David Cronenberg  made regular use of the Encyclopaedia during the making of his 2007 movie Eastern Promises).

Tattooing was illegal in prisons, so prisoners made tattoos by melting down boot heels and mixing the solution with blood and urine.


The Soviet dissident and writer Eduard Kuznetsov writes about a con who was operated on by prison authorities three times against his will to remove a tattoo on his forehead. The first tattoo read: Khrushchev's Slave. The second: Slave of the USSR. The third: Slave of the CPSU (Communist party). "Now, after three operations," wrote Kuznetsov, "the skin is so tightly stretched . . . he can no longer close his eyes. We call him The Stare."

The meticulous ink drawings of tattoos made by Danzig Baldaev, a prison guard from 1948 to 1986 appear in the Encyclopaedia. Over 3,000 tattoos were accumulated over a lifetime by the prison attendant .Tattoos 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 sometimes just strange, reflecting as they do the lives and traditions of Russian convicts. Skulls, swastikas, harems of naked women, a smiling Al Capone, medieval knights in armor, daggers sheathed in blood, benign images of Christ, sweet-faced mothers and their babies, armies of tanks and a horned Lenin: these are the signs by which the people of this hidden world mark and identify themselves.

A criminal with no tattoos was devoid of status, but to have a tattoo when you hadn't earned it – bearing the skull sign of a criminal authority, for example – often resulted in the tattoo being forcibly removed with a scalpel by fellow prisoners.

Tiger signifies an 'enforcer'

A cross worn on the chest signifies a "Prince of Thieves," the highest possible rank.

Barbed wire across ones forehead usually indicates a life-term in prison.

Here is a great documentary on the Russian Prison system:

Part of a special on Russian Mafia with an Interview with Danzig Baldaev, the guard who made the drawings for the Tattoo Encyclopaedia.

Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Limited Edition Boxed Set

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