Red Mob tattoo artistry

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Published:  February 28, 2011
Charlie Rose
Red Mob tattoo artistry

The Russian mafia were the real winners of the fall of Russian communism, the Red Mob are reported to control over 60% of politics, arms of the law and bank boards across this reborn communist State. With more money and reach than ever before, rules were bent and hardened criminals were released from the Gulag. Complex levels of power were represented with amazing tattoo artistry. Russia isn’t the only place with a significant system of criminal tattoos, just ask a retired Yakuza trying to get in a public bath. But practicality and an unexpected beauty, Russian Mafia tattoo culture demonstrates how visual culture is embraced in the most unlikely places.

All Photos Copyright Sergei Vasilev

All Photos Copyright Sergei Vasilev

All Photos Copyright Sergei Vasilev

All Photos Copyright Sergei Vasilev

The origin of this sub-culture dates back to before the 1920s (from when photos have surfaced) and has recently been on show at the Saatchi Gallery, London with poignant, stirring photographs by Sergei Vasiliev (featured). These images show men and women who live for their tattoos and Vasiliev treats his subjects with reverence. Other celebrated captivating images on the subject are Danzig Baldaev’s illustrations (also featured). These artworks have been compiled into three volumes of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia. Baldaev’s life work as a prison security guard and budding sociologist documenting the art in detail is a revelation. Baldaev’s illustrations are well executed but it is the tradition and society behind the tattoos he is drawing that makes his work so captivating.

These tattoos represent peoples lives in a crazy mix of religion, communism, sex, animals and nazis. The images can disgust you and make you laugh at the same time; some leave you with a bemused look on your face. But what I love is that when I look at these tattooed bodies with a wonder based in the visual, an initiated member of this society can understand entire life accomplishments by a glance. A great example of multi-coded information.

Trawling the internet, I found at least five different meanings for some of the most common tattoos. This shows that universal meanings of these ink workings are somewhat debated. What can be agreed upon is that most tattoos have either religious inspiration or symbolise rank and accomplishments both inside and outside jail walls. What this allows the criminals to do is reward themselves with shiny gold stars for good deeds… or something like that. There are initiation, ranking, thief, solitary confinement and forcibly rendered tattoos for sexual offenders. My personal favourite is how scores of ‘lifers’ tattooed political figures of Lenin, Stalin, Marx and co. over vital organs to protect themselves. The idea behind it was that the guards wouldn’t pound them on the depiction of their beloved Communist leaders.

What visual power. The inmates really believed in these symbols and it’s apparent how much they identified with and believed in them.

“[The books] told us what the tattoos meant and how they could become central to the movie. I said to Steve Knight [writer] when you see these books you’re going to want to do a major re-write to incorporate tattoos as a central metaphor,” said David Cronenberg, director of Eastern Promises.

All Illustrations Copyright Danzig Baldaev

All Illustrations Copyright Danzig Baldaev

All Illustrations Copyright Danzig Baldaev

All Illustrations Copyright Danzig Baldaev

One Response

  1. Not my cuppa tea, but interesting sub-culture

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