18 October 2010
Fuel revisits the graphic storytelling of Russian criminal tattoos
Danzig Baldaev’s original tattoo drawings, made famous by his Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, are to be exhibited in London next week by Fuel Design, writes John Ridpath. Baldaev collected his drawings while working as a prison guard between 1948 and 1986, creating a fascinating record of a dark, indelible tradition.
In ‘Written all over the body’ (Eye 53), Rick Poynor discussed the encyclopaedia and its topic: ‘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 thief’s entire biography can be written on the body.’
Tattoos are used to indicate a criminal’s background or status in the underground, and gangs have particular symbols and designs to mark out their members. Some designs are simple compositions of basic symbols, or words; others are more complex, incorporating detailed drawings of political leaders or sexually explicit images - sometimes both at the same time (below). But this is no autobiography - those who have committed crimes that other inmates disapprove of are tattooed by force, often on the face, as a form of punishment and branding.
Baldaev’s drawings reproduce tattoo designs out of the body context: they are sketched onto yellowing skin-like paper, numbered in sequence with annotations on the back of each sheet. This exhibition will add a new dimension to these images: they will be accompanied by a series of photographs by Sergei Vasiliev, taken in Russian prisons and reform settlements between 1989-1993. Seeing these designs in situ, on the stomachs, arms and faces of real-life criminals brings home the physical permanence of these dark biographies.
For more on tattoos, see ‘Body type’ in Eye 72.
30 October to 28 November 2010
Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive
4 Wilkes Street, London E1 6QF
Thursday to Sunday, 11am to 6pm.
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