Monday, March 1, 2010

The Coffee Table: Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia

First published in 2004 by Steidl/Fuel, the first edition of this book became both a publishing and a cultural sensation, lauded upon by anthropologists, ink jockeys, Russofiles and happy snappers alike.

Within months of it's small first run the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia was fetching substantial prices on the book market and became too rich too quick for my shallow pockets. Thankfully late in 2009, Fuel published a second edition and it's accompanying second and third volumes are also once again available.

The popularity of the book can be initially attributed to the curious nature of it's subject matter, or the widespread appeal of tattoo culture in general. The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia however goes far beyond mere eye candy, representing a full visual ethnography that takes us inside the Soviet criminal system, it's characters and the complex language of the tattoos themselves.

The Encyclopaedia's originator Danzig Baldaev, uses the book's foreword to explain how the project began. The son of an 'enemy of the people', his father was a famous scholar and a political pawn of the Soviet regime. Imprisoned and persecuted for his rich Buryat-Mongol upbringing and his refusal to tow the party line in persecuting his own ethnic minority, he eventually spent his days keeping a low profile, working a variety of odd jobs, away from the watchful eyes of the NKVD.

Danzig recounts that on showing his father some pictures from the 'Crosses' (solitary confinement cells) that he had collected while working as a prison attendant he said 'My son, collect the tattoos, the convicts' customs, their anti-social drawings, or it will all go to the grave with them'.

It's not exactly the heart to heart you ever imagined having with your Dad but Danzig spent the next thirty-three years using his job, first in the prisons and then in the Ministry of Interior gathering what he calls the language and folklore of the criminal world.

Baldaev eventually collected some 3000 'stories' of the tattoos in drawing form with fellow prison warden Sergei Vasiliev compiling an equally unique archive of photographs of the subjects. The project leads us into the fabric of the criminal underworld giving us a kind of alternate history lesson of the Soviet Union we never got at school. From skulls, to grinning pussy cats, sexually explicit hairy devils with harems of whores to Madonna with child, the tattoos themselves run the gamut, offering a glimpse into a secret language that literally branded the criminals for identification, denoting their crimes, gang affiliation and rank within the prison system.

A unique, wonderful book that has truly entered the world of popular culture, influencing, among others, David Cronenberg's 'Eastern Promises' and snotty misanthropist Martin Amis' 'House of Meetings', it's been in a forgotten corner of my wish list for years. Get yours while you can...


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