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.
Cats, I learned studying Baldaev’s drawings, connote luck and caution, except when tattooed on the chest, where they symbolize that the bearer is a criminal of established authority. The location of a tattoo sometimes influences its meaning, but just as often the placement is meaningless, as random as the location of a bored teenager’s doodle. Beetles can also represent luck, but more frequently they identify the bearer as a professional pickpocket. Ants, cockroaches, bees, flies and spiders are also the badges of pickpockets. Daisies represent gang membership, with the number of petals designating the number of years in the gang. The number of domes on a church signifies the number of sentences the bearer has received.
There is a rich symbology for tattoos on the hands, where the designs eschew figurativeness and mimic the settings of rings. Abbreviations and acronyms are sometimes inscribed on the fingers, but, being popular, they are also tattooed on other parts of the body. When tension between convicts was at its height following the war, convicts began coding subversive messages in seemingly innocuous words. When the authorities figured out the most important meanings, acronyms started to convey a wider variety of sentiments, retaining their usefulness. The Russian acronym for beetle, “zhuk,” is short for “May your theft be a success.” The acronym of “boss” means: “I was convicted by the Soviet courts.” “Elephant”: “Death to police via knife.”
The insular criminal world enjoyed a degree of political expressiveness that the rest of Soviet society had to repress. It was only in prison, after all, that Solzhenitsyn first encountered victims of the Terror and began to learn about other ideologies, paving the way for his first stirrings of doubt about the Soviet system. (“I never before dreamed that I would become interested in Estonia,” he wrote, reflecting on the experience, in The Gulag Archipelago.) Convicts who had a beef with the Soviet system often expressed their dissatisfaction through tattoos. Buffoonish illustrations depicting a Communist Party official as a skeleton, a devil or some kind of animal were popular and would be coupled with a salvo like “You should think with your head, not with your arse, like they do in the Kremlin.” (Anti-Semitism frequently figured in these tattoos.) Some political tattoos invoked specific grievances. In a prison in Kazakhstan, Baldaev documented a tattoo of a landmass resembling the Soviet Union titled the “Union of starving republics.” Crosses and crescents dot the territory, marking the sites of religious massacres.
Tattoos also figured as badges of shame. Cross the leader of a powerful prison gang and you could end up with “Informer,” “Class Enemy” or “Mule of the Communist Party” pricked into your forehead. Other victims of forced tattoos were men who engaged in homosexual acts. One such tattoo on a man’s back, of a woman with a snake, was supposed to give the man on top the illusion of copulating with a woman. Like other forced tattoos, it was meant to stigmatize the bearer. Among the tattoos prisoners coveted were ones that flaunted the bearer’s heterosexual prowess. One invited appreciation of what the tattoo claimed was the bearer’s impressive phallus. Common inscriptions included “Hello, girls!,” “Taste it, it’s yummy!” and “Don’t be scared, it doesn’t bite.”
Female prisoners expressed their sexuality with the same wry surliness. Baldaev found one woman adorned with a tattoo of a woman being penetrated by a Soviet-style sausage; above her is a banner with the words “The food provision program of the Communist Party is being fulfilled!” Yet in their tattoos women more readily attributed love to their sexual couplings than men, for whom homosexuality was almost always depicted in pejorative terms. Women expressed longing and tenderness for their female lovers, as with one tattoo of two naked women embracing above the inscription “I love you more than life itself!”
In the past decade, the mainstreaming of tattooing has robbed criminal tattoos of their significance. Now, any aspiring street tough can stroll into a Moscow tattoo parlor and procure what was once an exclusive criminal symbol. Moreover, Russian criminality has gone upscale. I would hazard that a sizable number of Russian criminals would prefer to boast about the size of their overseas bank accounts, stable of foreign cars and designer wardrobes rather than a blued patch of skin.