Selected works by Sergei Vasiliev

Sergei Vasiliev
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.7

2010

Giclée print

165 x 112 cm

Although this kind of tattooing was actually illegal, and Baldaev was initially forbidden from continuing, the KGB realised what a resource it could be for their criminal files and eventually supported his documentary project. Vasiliev was brought in to supply hard evidence of the designs’ authenticity. Raunchy, grotesque, filled in with insults against the authorities, the imagery developed its own formulas and conventions; for example, a skull means top criminality, a cat is a thief, and so on. To have no tattoos would have meant the lowest status, a lack of toughness; to have certain tattoos could be the sign of an untouchable.

Sergei Vasiliev
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.8

2010

Giclée print

165 x 112 cm

Thanks to their efforts, the secret police, and us now, know more about the iconography of this underground artistic phenomenon. Far from being isolated illustrations from a catalogue in a tattoo parlour, Vasiliev’s photographs are a humanizing record that places the faces and bodies of the owners (at one point one in five of the Soviet population) right at the centre of the project.

Text by Lupe Nùñez-Fernández

Sergei Vasiliev
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.9

2010

Giclée print

165 x 112 cm
Sergei Vasiliev
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.15

2010

Giclée print

165 x 112 cm
Sergei Vasiliev
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.10

2010

Giclée print

165 x 112 cm
Sergei Vasiliev
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.13

2010

Giclée print

165 x 112 cm
Sergei Vasiliev
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.12

2010

Giclée print

165 x 112 cm
Sergei Vasiliev
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.5

2010

Giclée print

165 x 112 cm

Vasiliev worked as staff photographer for a newspaper in Chelyabinsk for thirty years, during which time he was also a prison warden. From 1948 onward, a fellow worker, Danzig Baldaev, had begun drawing and cataloguing the extensive range of designs made by prisoners onto their skin. These homemade tattoos, scraped and inked into skin with melted book heels, urine or blood, contained a whole range of coded messages against the Soviet regime and about the prisoners’ individual crimes.

Sergei Vasiliev
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.4

2010

Giclée print

112 x 165 cm

Taken between 1989 and 1993, Sergei Vasiliev’s photographs of Soviet prisoners document the secret code language of criminals in the USSR, evidence of a gritty spirit of picaresque resistance within a violently repressive culture.

Sergei Vasiliev
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.17

2010

Giclée print

165 x 112 cm
Sergei Vasiliev
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.18

2010

Giclée print

112 x 165 cm
Sergei Vasiliev
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.19

2010

Giclée print

165 x 112 cm
Sergei Vasiliev
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.20

2010

Giclée print

112 x 165 cm

Articles

SYMBOLS OF A LIFE OF CRIME: THE FADING TATTOOS ON RUSSIA'S GANGLAND PRISONERS THAT CAN BE READ LIKE A CRIMINAL UNDERWORLD CV
5th December 2012, by Matt Blake, Mail Online

They are the fading symbols of a life dedicated to bloodshed, violence and the unspoken moral code of Russia's criminal underworld.
But far from a motley collection of meaningless drawings and letters, each tattoo has its own meaning and, to those who know, can be read like a curriculum vitae of the bearer's gangland past.
These haunting images were taken in the early 1990s by photographer Sergei Vasiliev after he gained access to some of Russia's toughest prisons at the peak of the gang wars that followed the break up of the Soviet Union.

The men in the photos are all gang members, locked up for a variety of crimes including theft, racketeering and murder.
A dagger in the neck means the bearer has killed and would kill again for the right price (the number of blood drops on the blade signify the number of murders he has committed), while a rose on the shoulder means he turned 18 in prison.

Source: dailymail.co.uk


SOVIET PRISONERS HAD A SECRET LANGUAGE – TATTOOS. WILL HODGKINSON DECIPHERS THE HIDDEN MEANING OF SKULLS, CATS, GRINS AND SWASTIKAS.
The Guardian, 27/10/10

Danzig Baldaev grew up in a Russian children’s home, his father having been denounced as an enemy of the people. He was later ordered to take a job as a warden in Kresty, an infamous Leningrad prison, where he worked from 1948 to 1981. It was a job that allowed Baldaev to continue his father’s work as an ethnographer – by documenting the tattoos of criminals. Heavy with symbolism and hidden meanings, the.

Source:


HISTORY ON SKIN
Russian convicts used tattoos to express a range of ideas and statements - St. Petersburg Times, by Roland Elliott Brown

There is a cliche — one too readily employed with regard to contemporary Western culture — to the effect that such and such an artist has “pushed boundaries” or has “broken taboos.” Most people, if they are honest with themselves, would admit that aesthetic boundaries are exceedingly porous in liberal democracies, where bold statements are more likely to bring accolades than rebukes.

Consider, by way of contrast, the fate of a Russian convict described in Edward Kuznetsov’s 1973 “Prison Diaries,” upon whose forehead prison surgeons operated three times to remove a political tattoo:

“The first time they cut out a strip of skin with a tattoo that said ‘Khrushchev’s Slave.’ The skin was then roughly stitched up. After he was released, he tattooed ‘Slave of the USSR’ on his forehead. Again, he was forcibly operated on to remove it. [The] third time, he covered his whole forehead with ‘Slave of the CPSU’ [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]. This tattoo was cut out and now, after three operations, the skin is so tightly stretched across his forehead that he can no longer close his eyes.”

Russian criminal tattoos have, in some small but significant way, begun to infiltrate and influence the Western creative class’ ideas of Russia at its most outre. In recent years, they have been depicted in David Cronenberg’s film “Eastern Promises” and in Martin Amis’ novel of the Great Terror, “House of Meetings.”

That anyone outside Russia should know anything about the phenomenon is due in no small part to the efforts of Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell, the founders of the London-based publishing and design company, FUEL, which has recently released the third volume of its popular “Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia.”

In a recent email exchange from London, Murray described how his and Sorrel’s desire to bring the dark and splenetic, anti-authoritarian aesthetic of the Soviet underworld to English-speaking audiences took shape.

“We made a trip to Moscow in February 1992, when we were studying at the Royal College of Art,” said Murray. “We were producing our FUEL magazine from the college at the time, and it was our intention to produce and print an issue from Moscow,” he said.

“Each issue was themed around four letter words, and USSR seemed an interesting play on this — particularly at a time when Yeltsin had just declared, ‘Everything, everywhere, is for sale,’” he added.

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