words Justin McGuirk
A graphical lexicon of the skin art of Russia’s convict classes impresses.
For 50 years or more Danzig Baldaev frequented the Soviet Union’s prisons, hospitals and city morgues. It was a personal project that took him to these places, but his profession granted him ease of access. Baldaev lost 58 family members to exile or the gulag and yet he ended up working first as a prison warden and then as a criminal investigator. His father, an ethnologist, was imprisoned as an “enemy of the people”, and it was at his suggestion that the young prison supervisor began to document the tattoos of the inmates.
Here was a history of the republics to parallel the official version. On the skins of thieves and hooligans existed an iconography so rich and impenetrably elaborate that even the KGB supported Baldaev’s work when so many other cultural historians had written themselves into a ticket to Siberia.
“For a long time all of us lived under the leadership of villains, tricksters and bandits,” writes Baldaev in the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia. No wonder he empathises with his subjects. With needle and ink they pricked their political commentary on shoulders, chests, fingers – even eyelids and penises. Horned Lenins, porcine Brezhnevs, vampiric Yeltsins (“I’m not a punk like Mishka Gorbachev, who only drinks ryazhenka”) – the one place you could get away with such images, and their sexually obscene variations, was on the incarcerated body. But for all the anti-Soviet invective, this wasn’t and isn’t genuine political dissent as much as plain rebelliousness, spleen-venting.
The only politics the hardcore inmate respects is the internal politics of organised crime. Among inveterate criminals, authority is measured by a hierarchical system of ornamentation: tattooed rings, epaulettes, acronyms and religious or pornographic iconography signify an underground social order. Your tattoos are your CV, and where one man’s winged skull says “boss” another’s ace of diamonds says “stool pigeon”. This language, which is evolved enough to send messages on couriers, is inviolate. If any unearned regalia is detected – any exaggerated work experience, say – it is removed with a knife, sandpaper or shard of glass.
An untattooed convict, of course, is a hopeless stooge. But that is far from the worst he can be, because just as tattoos communicate status they also enact justice. Much of the pornographic imagery, for instance, is free of any erotic or sexual subtext and is used just to degrade. A con who can’t pay a gambling debt might be branded a “blyad”, or whore, for which read social death. One’s badge of rank determines a strict behavioural stereotype, which, along with religious talismans protecting against “narks and the court”, contribute to the mythology of the “legitimate thief”.
Half of the book is dedicated to female tattoos, but they make no concessions to the fairer sex. “If you’re unfaithful I’ll cut your balls off,” reads one, from the hip of a convicted hooligan, and you couldn’t mistake the imagery. But underneath Baldaev’s painstaking drawings, it is when he is able to tell us something about the person that a sense of social tragedy emerges. Some of these women are in jail for stealing food for their children or for killing men who tried to rape them. On a woman’s stomach in 1971 Baldaev found a barbed-wire heart inscribed: “I never hold anything heavier than a glass or a prick in my hand … I’m no Soviet serf.” Underneath, Baldaev simply writes: “She lived at flat 150, 4 Veselnaya Street in Leningrad and was stabbed to death by her lover, K Gerasimov, a chauffeur, in a jealous fit of rage.”
This is a remarkable book, even if it does rely on a certain morbid fascination. Here is an iconographic language understood in and out of correctional institutions from St Petersburg to Siberia and across Central Asia. These are not mere doodles but often sprawling, allegorical art works consuming entire torsos, inspired by icons and even Raphael madonnas. Their owners may have some of the toughest faces you’ve ever seen but the language is accessible to most of Russian society, such is the pervasiveness of mafia culture.
Like trustafarian mockney in London, Moscow society finds prison jargon chic. And this is, as the introductory essay notes, “ of our country has passed through the camps and every second has been through the army ‘zones’. And we honest, upright philistines and law-abiding petty bourgeois have long ago become used to seeing ourselves in the role of noble bandits, downtrodden victims and fearless inhabitants of tattoed slums.”
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, by Danzig Baldaev, Steidl, £14.50