Sergei Vasiliev Prison

01

Mikhail Kovanev, poet, artist and musician, was serving a sentence of fifteen years for murder. He claimed he was innocent of this charge. Every part of his body was covered with tattoos, many of his own design. The eyes on the stomach mean that he was a homosexual (the penis makes the 'nose' of the face). In the colony he became a drug addict and was subsequently killed.

02

These tattoos are in the 'traditional' style: a large central tattoo covering the chest and stomach area. The central motif is based on Raphael’s Madonna from the Sistine Chapel. This was a popular thieves’ ‘talisman’, reserved only for the highest ranking areas of the body.

03

Traditionally tattoos bearing images of Lenin and Stalin were usually tattooed onto the chest, it was a commonly held belief that Communist firing squads were not permitted to shoot at an image of their leaders. Text above Lenin reads ‘Wake up Ilyich (Lenin)’, above the tiger ‘They (criminals) are getting brazen’.

04

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 held in such high regard, criminals often attempted to be transferred there in order to be tattooed. The dollar bill on the shoulder signifies the bearer’s commitment to a life of crime.

05

The text at the top of the thigh reads: 'The earth is empty without you'. The 'Made in CCCP' tattoo on the right breast is the state quality mark of the USSR. This symbol was only applied to consumer goods of the 'highest quality'. The rose tangled in barbed wire on the shoulder, denotes that the bearer celebrated their 16th or 18th birthday in the ‘zone’.

06

This convicts apparently random tattoos denote his rank within the criminal world. They embody a thief’s complete ‘service record’, his entire biography, detailing all of his achievements and failures, his promotions and demotions, his ‘secondments’ to jail and his ‘transfers’ to different types of ‘work’. A thief’s tattoos are his ‘passport’, ‘case file’, ‘awards record’, ‘diplomas’ and ‘epitaphs’. In this world a man with no tattoos has no social status whatsoever. Across the chest ‘Death is not vengeance / the dead don’t suffer’. On the arms ‘I live in sin / I die laughing’.

07

Orthodox religious tattoos are still among the most popular amoung criminals today. The crucifix and the Madonna and Child, depicted in the Orthodox tradition of icon painting, meant ‘my conscience is clean before my friends’, ‘I will not betray’. The Madonna signified ‘prison is my home’ – that the wearer was a multiple offender and recidivist. The number of domes on the tattoo of a church indicates the number of convictions. If a dome was adorned with a cross, it meant that the sentence had been served in full. As well as being a totem of a pickpocket, the scarab beetle is considered to bring luck to the wearer, these are usually tattooed on the hands, rarely (as in this image) they appear on other parts of the body.

08

The tattoos across the eyelids read ‘Do not / Wake me’. The genie on the forearm is a common symbol of drug addiction. If an addict is imprisoned for drug offences, he or she will have to go through withdrawal in the ‘zone’ (prison). Epaulette tattoos (on the shoulders) display the criminal’s rank in a system that mirrors that of the army (major, colonel, general etc).

09

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’.

10

The tattoo on the neck reads 'I don't need happiness', beneath the neck 'I live in sin, I die laughing'. The scar on this criminals face is usually forcibly applied as a punishment to any convict who has informed or betrayed his fellow inmates.

11

This prisoner’s tattoos display his anger and bitterness towards Communist power; the tattoos on the face signify that he never expects to go free. He works as a stoker. Text under the eyes reads ‘Full / of Love’; on the chin ‘Danger of Death’; around the neck ‘To each his own’; above each head of the double-headed snake ‘Wife’ and ‘Mother-in-law’; on the chest ‘It is not for you whores, to dig in my soul’; on his arm ‘Communists, suck my dick for my ruined youth’.

12

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'.

13

The epaulette and the spider on the shoulders denote a high-ranking criminal. The text across the chest reads: ‘O Lord, forgive me for the tears of my mother’. On the right side of the bearers chest is tattooed 100-ruble note, usually signifying involvement in counterfeiting and commitment to criminal life.

14

The text on the ankle reads ‘100 thousand kilometers without a major overhaul’ (referring to the distance walked by the prisoner). The eye signifies that the bearer is always on guard. The thieves cross tattooed on the knee means ‘I will not kneel before the police’.

15

The tiger and the text ‘Killer’ (in English) tattooed on the hand symbolise the bearer's aggression. His ring tattoos signify he is a high-ranking thief and an anarchist, who ‘will never be corrected’. In this colony they make and sell wooden items that are in great demand. He was killed by his fellow inmates for refusing to contribute money to the ‘community kitty’.

16

Women’s tattoos are distinguished by their sentimental nature. Lesbian relationships are common in female prisons; acronyms and phrases declaring undying love are popular. The text at the top reads: ‘If you want to grab grief – fall in with love me!’ and below ‘Let my love lie on your life like a tombstone’.

17

This photograph was taken in the Special Commandant’s office shortly before the end of the convict’s sentence. The roaring tiger is a symbol of the thief’s aggression, known as an oskal (bared teeth). It is common among convicts who are hostile to the authorities. The text below this tattoo reads ‘Man is wolf to man’. Text under the elbow reads ‘Death to the defeated ones’.

18

A palm tattoo from a convict detained in this famous prison (constructed in 1890). Beetles, ants, cockroaches, bumblebees, flies, and spiders (without cobwebs) are the symbols of pickpockets. Palm tattoos carrying texts of brief threats and insults (‘Shut up, bitch!’, ‘Beat the party activists!’) were widespread in the late 1940s and mid 1950s.

19

Text across the chest reads ‘As long as I breathe, I hope’. The turbaned man clutching a knife in his mouth indicates an inclination to brutality, sadism, and a negative attitude toward activists – prisoners who openly collaborate with prison authorities (also often a pirate). The Latin text on the shoulder reads ‘Remember your mortality’.

20

A high-ranking, authoritative thief. In the early 1950s, it became customary for thieves to tattoo dots or small crosses on the knuckles, the number of dots indicating the number of terms. The punishment for the slightest attempt to position oneself as a legitimate or to wear an undeserved tattoo was severe. At best, the tattoo would be removed with sandpaper or a razor, but it was not uncommon for the offender to be raped or killed. Convicts were even punished for tattooing more dots on their hands than sentences they had served, or for wearing a ring tattoo with the symbol of a crime they hadn’t committed. German text on the top of his right arm reads ‘God with us’. Latin text on the forearm ‘Remember your mortality’. Text on the fingers of the left hand reads ‘BARS’: (literally ‘lynx, snow leopard’), Bey Aktiv, Rezh Suk (beat up activists, kill bitches); underneath this ‘No Salvation, No Happiness’.

 

This edition of photographs has been made with the full co-operation of the photographer Sergei Vasiliev. They were taken between 1989 and 1993 in prisons and reform settlements across Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, Perm and St Petersburg.

 

These prints can be purchased exclusively from the FUEL website here:
The ‘Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volumes I-III’ can be purchased here:

 

All images © courtesy of Sergei Vasiliev/FUEL

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