Historians speculate that the modern tattoo arrived in Russia in the nineteenth century care of English sailors, who mixed with Russian criminals when misbehavior got them jailed while docked in Russian ports. The English yen for tattooing can be traced to the explorer James Cook, who encountered tattoos while visiting Tahiti in 1769. Members of Cook’s crew acquired tattoos as souvenirs during subsequent voyages to the South Pacific, and tattooed English sailors were soon appearing in port towns throughout Europe. By the twentieth century, artistically inclined Russian convicts were branding their prison mates regularly, using staples or syringes for needles and soot and urine for ink.
Tattoos became particularly significant in Russia after World War II, when convicts who had served in the Soviet army streamed back into prisons, sparking a conflict with prisoners who had remained incarcerated. The inmates who volunteered to fight were seen as traitors, for the code criminals subscribed to forbade any collaboration with prison authorities. Tattoos signaled whether a prisoner was vory v zakone–part of the original criminal elite–or a suka–a bitch–as the criminals who had fought in the war were known.
The tensions between the vory and the suki conspired to make tattoos inscrutable to outsiders. Danzig Baldaev, an unassuming prison warden of Buryat descent, was their ethnographer. Encouraged by his father, an anthropologist imprisoned by the state during Baldaev’s childhood for his work on the Buryats, Baldaev began to document tattoos in 1948 at his first place of employment, the Kresty prison in St. Petersburg. Even though Baldaev came from a politically suspect home–besides his imprisoned father, he lost fifty-eight relatives to Soviet prisons and the Gulag–the KGB sanctioned his work, finding his meticulous research valuable in assessing criminals’ origins. Baldaev spent fifty-two years as a warden-cum-ethnographer and toured prisons throughout the Soviet Union to supplement the drawings he made on the job. By the time he died in 2005, he had produced more than 3,000 drawings of Russian criminal tattoos.
In 2003 the publisher Fuel began repackaging a large portion of Baldaev’s trove of sketches in the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia. Curiously, the first image you see in the recently published third and final volume ($25) was rendered not with ink but light. It’s a gloomy photograph of a tattooed inmate taken by Baldaev’s friend, Sergei Vasiliev. The man is bare-chested, and his numb eyes gaze into the camera. His chest is carpeted with tattoos. A long white scar as thick as a pane of glass runs a few centimeters above his jaw line and drops off above his chin. The prisoner acquired it, the book reveals elsewhere, as a reprisal for ratting on a fellow inmate. Other photographs by Vasiliev are sprinkled throughout the volume, and in them the prisoners appear just as malnourished, tubercular and preternaturally aged. The photographs seem designed to evoke a sense of compassion for the convicts despite the brutal crimes many of them committed.
In Baldaev’s detailed renderings, the tattoos range in quality from embarrassing to magnificent. A prisoner could get stuck with a tattoo that looked like a second-grader’s drawing or one applied with a professional touch. Even if the artistry is top-notch, though, the ink eventually blurs and fades. My grandfather spent time in prison in Siberia following World War II, and I remember seeing bloated blue lines peeking out from under his sleeve. It took me a while to realize that the tattoo was of the face of a cat.