Russian criminal tattoos have fascinated people for a long time. Between the years of 1948 and 1986, a Russian prison guard named Danzig Baldaev was so fascinated with these tattoos that he drew over three thousand of them. He left the drawings to his widow when he died, which were then eventually purchased from her; now they have been published online and are available for viewing. Danzig acted as an ethnographer, getting details about the story and meaning behind each of these tattoos, which are also included with his drawings. Danzig wasn’t the only person with a keen interest in the tattoos donned by Russian inmates; during the 1960s and into the 1980s, a gentleman named Arkady Bronnikov conducted his own research and investigations into the seedy world of Russian criminals and their tattoos. He visited prisons all over the Soviet Union to take pictures of tattooed inmates. Using these photographs, Bronnikov was able to decipher their body art and identify criminals based on their tattoos to help solve crimes.
A large portion of the tattoos are quite depressing and downtrodden. These tattoos show men in shackles, farmers depicted as skeletons to represent that the government stripped them of everything, and snakes around the neck to signify drug addiction. However, there are also some interesting tattoos that signify political rebellion, their status in the criminal underworld, and the thieves code. For instance, the cross, which is a tattoo typically worn on the chest, is a symbol of being a thief. My favorite irreverent tattoo is the necktie with a dollar sign in the center, meaning the prisoner was either a safe-cracker or a money launderer. Other criminal tattoos are patently less funny. A knife through the neck symbolizes that the wearer has murdered someone inside jail, and that they are willing to pull off another hit for the right incentive. Another grisly tattoo is that of a woman being burned on a cross, which signifies that a person has murdered a woman. The number of logs under the fire indicates the number of years for their prison sentence.
The method of tattooing inside Russian prisons is said to be fairly painful, and can take a long time to complete. Due to the setting, the tattoo process was — and probably still is — rather crude and unsophisticated. For some of the prisoners, their tattoos took several years to finally complete. The reason it takes so long is unknown, but it is probably safe to assume they weren’t doing daily tattoo sessions. An electric shaver was the equipment of choice between the 60s and the 80s, which was then modified so that needles and an ampoule of liquid dye could be attached.
The sanitary conditions of these tattoos were abysmal at best. The dye was obtained from scorched rubber mixed with urine. Some prisoners contracted tetanus, gangrene, and lymphadenitis, an inflammation of the lymph nodes. It was also not unheard of for prisoners to contract syphilis or HIV from receiving tattoos in these conditions. Nevertheless, the tattoos are so important inside the prison system that they did it anyway. Stories about “false tattoos” also show how important they are inside Russian jails. A tattoo is said to be false if the wearer does not believe in it or if it has no meaning. If word got around about someone having a false tattoo, the wearer would be given a sharp object like a shard of glass and told to remove the tattoo. Those who refused were brutally beaten or, in rare cases, murdered.
The pictures of the Russian tattoos were initially compiled for police use and identification of criminals. They served as an aid to the detectives who needed to identify culprits or corpses. They also helped the police to understand which tattoos were common among criminals. In the case of Danzig’s drawings, he was simply interested in the prisoners' body art and the story that went along with it. Now these artifacts serve as a part of the historical record and help us to understand a lesser known aspect of humanity.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of PainfulPleasures.