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

Other Resources

fuel-design.com
This unique archive documents Russian criminals' tattoos and their coded meanings. Included in the collection are more than three thousand tattoo drawings made by Danzig Baldaev during his time as a prison guard between 1948 and 1986. Tattoos were his gateway into a secret world in which he acted as ethnographer, recording the rituals of a closed society. The icons and tribal languages he documented are artful, distasteful, sexually explicit and provocative, reflecting as they do the lives and traditions of convicts.

michaelhoppengallery.com
Between 1948 to 2005, 3,000 drawings were compiled by prison warden and ethnographer Danzing Baldaev of the tattoos of the inmates. Supported by the KGB, who recognised the usefulness of such a document, these drawings were supplemented by photographs by Sergei Vasiliev, a fellow warden.
In 2003, the publisher Fuel began repackaging the sketches and photographs into the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia.
Vasiliev’s black-and-white photographs are an important document of Baldaev's illustrations, designed to confirm their authenticity, but becoming something much more- humanizing the hardship and heartbreak behind the bravado of the illustrated flesh.

bbc.co.uk
When Danzig Baldaev was a boy his father, an eminent Buryat ethnographer, was denounced as an “enemy of the people” by the Soviet authorities. Danzig was later sent to work as a prison guard. His life’s work, the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, has just been published by Steidl/Fuel. Photos by Sergei Vasiliev.