Occasionally a book is published that reveals a subculture you never dreamt existed. More rarely, that book goes on to become a phenomenon of its own. The 2004 publication of theRussian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia was such a phenomenon, spawning two further volumes and alerting a fascinated readership worldwide to the extraordinary and hermetic world of Russian criminal tattoos (David Cronenberg, for example, made regular use of theEncyclopaedia during the making of his 2007 movie Eastern Promises). Now, Fuel has reprinted volume one of this bestselling series, whose first edition already fetches considerable sums online. The photographs, drawings and texts published in this book are part of a collection of more than 3,000 tattoos accumulated over a lifetime by a prison attendant named Danzig Baldaev. 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. With a foreword by Danzig Baldaev, and an introduction by Alexei Plutser-Sarno, exploring the symbolism of the Russian criminal tattoo.
A rare and astonishing book, a glimpse of a deeply secretive world that has taken the author a lifetime to penetrate. It reveals more graphically than any Gulag history the unreformed horror of Russia: the lack of law, the rule of violence, the brutality, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. And yet it is filled with a poignance and a sense of personal tragedy that brought tears to my eyes.
– – –
As the book convincingly reveals, this is a realm of unexpected graphic complexity. The tattoos are not mere decorations and there is nothing arbitrary about any of their elements. They are a form of speech, and every symbol has a meaning that can be understood.
– – –
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.
– – –
Every now and then a book comes out that illuminates a part of the world that was not only previously hidden but which could not even be imagined. Such a work is the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia. In these photos and drawings, like nothing you have ever seen before, are reflected the horrors of Russia written on the skins of criminals. As strange as the pictures are, they are not so foreign as to eliminate sadness and tragedy; anyone flipping through the images will be enlightened about a very distant world, but also will be distressed and mystified.
- Russian prison tattoos revealed untold side of Soviet history (voiceofrussia.com)
- Russian tattoo master invents easy removal method of ink (rbth.co.uk)
- Best tattoo that you ever want (tattooartz.wordpress.com)