Russian criminal tattoo archive

In these images the nameless bodies of criminals act as both a text and mirror, reflecting and preserving the ever-changing folklore of the Russian criminal underworld. The next exhibition will be held at "Galerie Max Hetzler" in Berlin, Germany, 28 April – 23 June 2012.

The dagger through the neck shows that the prisoner committed murder while in prison, and that he is available to 'hire' for further murders. The bells on the feet indicate that he served his time in full ('to the bell'), the manacles on the ankles mean that the sentences were over five years. 'Ring' tattoos on the fingers show the status of the criminal when the rest of his body is covered. The 'thieves' stars' on the knees carry the symbolic meaning ‘I will not kneel before the police'.
‘Stalin was born in the 9th day of the moon, his ‘bat’ image is the symbol of Satan! 21.XII.1879 – 5.III.1953’ (Stalin’s dates of birth and death).Kaschenko hospital. 1979. Stomach.The owner of the tattoo had been convicted for hooliganism twice. He was an alcoholic going by the nicknames ‘Banka-Satan’, ‘Fool’ or ‘Cosack’. After much prevarication, he ‘surrendered’ to the hospital at Kaschenko, to avoid serious complications.
Tattoos on the eyelids are made by inserting a metal spoon under the lid so that the 'needle' doesn’t penetrate the eye. Here they read 'Do not / wake me'.
‘Take out bitches, stool-pigeons and traitors!’ The acronym ‘MIR’ spells the word for peace and stands for ‘Only shooting will reform me’.A ‘warrior’s grin’.
This prisoner’s tattoos signify that he feels angry and bitter with communist power (‘Communists, Suck My Dick for My Ruined Youth’). The tattoos on the face signify that he never expects to go free. the words underneath his eyes read: 'Full of Love'. He works as a stoker.
The skeleton holds the Order of the October Revolution. Text on the sign reads ‘90 million were killed’. Text on the skeleton’s sash reads ‘Communists, repent!!!’. Text underneath reads ‘Down with the Communist Party!’.Dzhidastroy Corrective Labour Camp, Buryat-Mongol ASSR. 1960s.An anti-communist tattoo.
This convict’s tattoos were applied in the camps of the Urals where the tattoo artists produce work of exceptional quality. Because they were so highly regarded, criminals often attempted to be transferred there in order to be tattooed.
The acronym stands for ‘Separation is worse than hell, when you’re not beside me’. Stomach, hip. This tattoo means, ‘Husband and wife are a family of thieves’.Bottom: The acronym stands for ‘Listen, it’s already impossible to stop loving you’.Stomach, thigh. A thieves’ family – a husband and the wife. The tulip and the rose symbolise that the 16th and 18th anniversary have been spent in places of imprisonment. The number of barbs on the wire indicates the total term of the sentence (in this case 8 years).
The eyes on the top of the chest signify 'I can see everything' and 'I am watching'. Text across the chest reads 'Son of the criminal world'. This photograph shows tattoos in a combination of old and new styles. In the ‘new’ style a large number of almost random images on the convict’s body. In the ‘traditional’ style there is one large central tattoo on the chest, filling as much space as possible.
‘I am a son of the world of thieves’Konyashin Hospital Morgue, 104 Moscow Prospect, Leningrad. 1966. Right side of chest.A rare specimen of a tattoo with a portrait. The wearer of this tattoo was killed in an attack on a militiaman (policeman). On 18th July 1966 at about three o’clock in the morning, beside the House of Culture on Moscow Prospect, a ferocious attack was launched on a militiaman on point duty, in an attempt to steal his official issue weapon. The attacker, I. Tikhonov, had several previous convictions for theft. He failed to react to a warning shot from militiaman Stepanov of the Moscow District Militia, and in the ensuing struggle he attacked Stepanov with a knife. He was killed by the second shot from Stepanov’s gun.
This inmate was convicted for drug related crimes. 'Gott mit uns': 'God with us' was a rallying cry of both the Russian empire and the Third Reich. The Nazi Iron Cross expresses ‘I don’t care about anybody’. This symbol of aggression and insubordination is often tattooed on the chest tattooed as if hung on a chain. The barbed wore on the forehead denotes that the bearer ‘will never be corrected’.
From the top the text reads ‘Giant of Soviet thought, C2H5OH [the molecular formula for alcohol]. Down the hatch, Cheering Kremlin Heart Drops, For victory over Chechnya!!!!!’. A caricature known as ‘Japanese eyes’. The wearer fought in the Chechen war of 1994-1996.

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