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Russian Voices

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Despite the fact that they are almost the complete opposite of what most people find appealing about tattoos, prison tattoos have always managed to retain their very own particular aesthetic and importance.  Sure, no one’s really in any sort of particular hurry to get one (unless of course, you happen to be doing time), but they’re interesting to look at and once you start to peel the layers back and look for meaning in the work, there’s often a history to be found.

An upcoming exhibition in London, England is ready to take aim at a project that was begun some sixty-two years ago.  After his father was denounced as an enemy of the people by the Russian state, Danzig Baldaev grew up in a children’s home.  Once he was old enough to work, he was forced to take a job as a warden at Leningrad prison in 1948.  Here he began something of a curious hobby – documenting the tattoos of the Russian prisoners.  He was able to do this for some time before the Russian authorities discovered what was going on, but surprisingly enough, they allowed Baldaev to continue on with his work.

‘”They realised the value of being able to establish the facts about a convict or criminal: his date and place of birth, the crimes he had committed, the camps where he had served time, and even his psychological profile,” Baldaev wrote, shortly before his death in 2005.’

What Baldaev discovered through his work was the vast world of Russian prison tattoos and the meanings behind them.  For one thing, tattoos were illegal in Russian prisons, but that certainly didn’t stop the prisoners from adorning themselves with a variety of imagery.  Ink was made by melting down the heel of a boot and mixing this with blood and urine.

Skulls denoted a criminal authority. A cat represented a thief. On a woman, a tattoo of a penis was the kitemark of a prostitute. Crosses on knuckles denoted the number of times the wearer had been to prison, and a shoulder insignia marked solitary confinement, while a swastika represented not a fondness for fascism but a refusal to accept the rules of prison society.

A criminal with no tattoos was devoid of status, but to have a tattoo when you hadn’t earned it – bearing the skull sign of a criminal authority, for example – often resulted in the tattoo being forcibly removed with a scalpel by fellow prisoners. And “grins” (depicting communist leaders in obscene or comical positions) were a way for criminal to put two fingers up at the authorities.’

Life was harsh in these environments and the tattoos seemed to give the inmates a purpose, a method by which to showcase the lives they had lead and the people that they were.  The exhibition runs at 4 Wilkes Street, from 29 October – 29 November, Thursday to Sunday, 11am-6pm in London, England.  If you live in these parts or just happen to be visiting, I think stopping by would be well worth the time.  For the rest of us who aren’t anywhere near London, Fuel Design – the people who are putting on the exhibition – have put out three different volumes of Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedias.  For a taste of some of the gnarly photos in the encyclopaedias and at the exhibition, follow this link.  If you’re interested in buying a copy of the RCTE, try going here.

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