Print No.4, 1992. Strict Regime Corrective Labour Colony No.6, Chelyabinsk Region. The tattoo on the shoulder of a spider in a cobweb can carry different meanings: if the spider is climbing up the web then the bearer of the tattoo is fully involved in a life of crime, if it is climbing down the wearer is attempting to escape their criminal lifestyle.
Print No.9, 1990. General Regime Corrective Labour Colony No.5. Chelyabinsk Region. The tattoos across the eyelids read
‘Do not / Wake me’. The genie on the forearm is a common symbol of drug addiction. If an addict is imprisoned for drug offences, he or she will have to go through withdrawal in the ‘zone’ (prison). Epaulette tattoos (on the shoulders) display the criminal’s rank in a system that mirrors that of the army (major, colonel, general etc).
Print No.10, 1991. Corrective Labour Colony No.5 Nizhny Tagil, Sverdlovsk Region. This inmate was convicted for drug related crimes. 'Gott mit uns': 'God with us' was a rallying cry of both the Russian empire and the Third Reich. The Nazi Iron Cross expresses ‘I don’t care about anybody’. This symbol of aggression and insubordination is often located on the chest, tattooed as if hung on a chain. The barbed wire on the forehead denotes that the bearer ‘will never be corrected’.
Print No.12, 1993. Strict Regime Forest Camp Vachel Settlement. Penza Region. This prisoner’s tattoos display his anger and bitterness towards Communist power; the tattoos on the face signify that he never expects to go free. He works as a stoker. Text under the eyes reads ‘Full / of Love’; on the chin ‘Danger of Death’; around the neck ‘To each his own’; above each head of the double-headed snake ‘Wife’ and ‘Mother-in-law’; on the chest ‘It is not for you whores, to dig in my soul’; on his arm ‘Communists, suck my dick for my ruined youth’.
Police Files 2. The tattoos on this inmate mimic those of higher-ranking criminals and indicate he has adopted a thieves’ mentality. However, he does not wear the ‘thieves’ stars’, he is not a vor v zakone (thief-in-law) and therefore holds no real power among this caste.
As soon as normal inmates enter the mass population of the ‘zone’ (either a prison or a camp), they realise that the thieves are in charge. They copy both their tattoos and mannerisms in an attempt to elevate their status. For self-protection they need to show themselves to be exceptional, experienced, brave and seasoned men. In addition to fear, respect and the obedience of friends, their tattoos are intended to demonstrate a desire for self-assertion and the conquest of authority in the criminal environment.
Police Files 5. Lenin is held by many criminals to be the chief pakhan (boss) of the Communist Party. The letters BOP, which are sometimes tattooed under his image, carry a double meaning. The acronym stands for ‘Leader of the October Revolution’ but also spells the Russian word VOR (thief). Often tattoos with portraits of Lenin and Stalin are intended to show patriotic feelings. However, some prisoners had portraits of Lenin and Stalin tattooed on their chest for ‘protection’, as it was commonly believed that the guards were forbidden to shoot at an image of their great leaders.
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.