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Sergei Vasiliev‘s photographs of Russian Criminal Tattoos are part of a three part encyclopaedia/archive on the subject. Vasiliev photographed between 1989 and 1993 in prisons and reform settlements across Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, Perm and St. Petersburg.

Vasiliev’s portraits are accompanied by over 3,000 tattoo drawings made by Danzig Baldaev during his time as a prison guard between 1948 and 1986. Baldaev had supported of the KGB who used his illustrations to develop intelligence on the convict class.

Three volumes of the encyclopaedia have since been published by FUEL Designs:

” [The documentation of] Tattoos were Baldaev‘s 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.”

“The accompanying photographs by Sergei Vasiliev act as an important counterpart to Baldaev’s drawings, providing photographic evidence of their authenticity. […] 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.”

Baldaev’s drawings and Vasiliev’s portraits are currently being exhibited at 4 Wilkes Street, London E1 6QF (30 October to 28 November 2010).

The Guardian has this review of the book/exhibition. More about Baldaev in particular at Design Observer.

RESOURCES

Image gallery.

From FUEL Publishing are three video shorts [1], [2], [3] of the drawings and photographs.

More can be found on Vasiliev‘s work at Michael Hoppen Gallery, Saatchi online (images) and the PhotoEye book review.

Found via Eight:48.com

PREVIOUSLY ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY

I’ve posted before about prison tattoos:
Prison Tattoos and the Photographers’ Intrigue
Klaus Pichler: Central European Prison Tattoos, Taxidermy and Beguiling Portraits of Odessans
Detached, formaldehyde-soaked, preserved, studied: The tattooed skin of Polish prisoners
Bob Gumpert on Foto8, on Prison Tattoo Codes

BIO

Sergei Vasiliev was born in 1937 in Chelyabinsk, Russia. After graduating from the MVD Academy, Moscow, he became a staff photographer for the newspaper ‘Vecherny Chelyabinsk’, where he has worked for the past thirty years. he has received many honours including International Master of Press Photography from the International Organization of Photo Journalists (Prague, 1985), Honoured Worker of Arts of Russia, and the Golden Eye Prize. His work has been exhibited internationally and is held in numerous museums’ collections. He is author of more than twenty books, including ‘Russian Beauty’, (1996) and ‘Zonen’, (1994).

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It seems like I’ve been saying a lot on prison tattoos (here and here) recently … which is true, but it’s not even an area of keen interest for me. Maybe this will be the last one, or maybe not, depending on what friends and photographers continue to produce.

I have expressed reservations about photographing prison tattoos because inevitably the images may fail to penetrate the coda that prisoners share, understand and guard.

Therefore, I applaud Bob Gumpert for providing his audience with as much understanding as he has drawn during his documentation. Accompanying American Prison Tattoos the multimedia piece published on Foto8 last week, Gumpert provides a “short and incomplete glossary of tattoo markings & terms” and a “list of slogans reflecting beliefs or attitudes.”

Of course, Bob Gumpert‘s work is about much more than just tattoos. He has been working in the San Francisco and San Bruno jails systems for 14 years and it touches upon every imaginable story of American cities, families and experience. I encourage you to check out Take A Picture, Tell A Story, his multimedia platform for his jail work; his general website; and his blog.

Last week, when Foto8 ran Katarzyna Mirczak‘s article about of the detached and preserved skin of prisoners’ tattoos, I was, of course, compelled to post about it. But, in truth, I need to do a lot more than duly note a story published elsewhere.

HOW HAVE PHOTOGRAPHERS TAKEN ON THE SUBJECT OF PRISON TATTOOING?

The simple answer is with limitations. Photography can describe tattoos very precisely, but description is not comprehension. Often, prison tattoos are a tactically guarded language.

Even if tattoo symbols are deciphered, they may carry different meanings in other cultures. Prison systems exist across the globe, within and “outside” different political regimes, thus the tattoos of each prison culture should be considered according to their own rules – and this caveat applies even at local levels.

Janine Jannsen offers a good introduction to the history of different tattooing cultures. She summarises tattooing in “total institutions” (navy, army, the penitentiary); tattoos and gender; and tattoos and the demarcation of space.

With regards to prison tattoos, maybe it helps us to think of photography as secondary to sociological research. Photography should be thought of as an illustrative tool to aid external inquiry.

That said, there are a number of photographers who have made honorable efforts to describe for a wider audience much of the significance of prison and gang tattoo cultures.

Araminta de Clermont

After their release from prison, Araminta de Clermont tracked down South African gang members and discovered their stories. Interview with Araminta and her subjects here.

© Araminta de Clermont

Donald Weber

Donald Weber mixed with former prisoners (‘zeks’) in Russia and concentrated on how their prison tattoos relate to their identity and criminal lifestyle. The relationships of these men with female criminals and prostituted women (‘Natashas’) who become their companions feature in Weber’s complex investigation.

“Some rules are simple: you can only get a tattoo while in prison.”

September 1, 2007: Vova, zek. The origins of Russia’s criminal caste lie deep in Russia’s history. Huge territories of Russia were inhabited by prisoners and prison guards. Thieves, or zeks, distinguish themselves from others by tattoos marking their rank in the criminal world: there are different tattoos for homosexuals, thieves, rapists and murderers. © Donald Weber / VII Network.

Rodrigo Abd

Rodrigo Abd‘s portraits of Mara gang members in Chimaltenango prison in Guatemala illustrate gang tattoos that are used less and less (from 2007 onwards) due to the unavoidable affiliation and violence they brought the bearer; “After anti-gang laws were approved in Honduras and El Salvador, and a string of killings in Guatemala that were committed by angry neighbors and security forces, gang members have stopped tattooing themselves and have resorted to more subtle, low profile ways of identifying themselves as members of those criminal organizations. Today, gang members with tattooed faces, are either dead, in prison or hiding.”

© Rodrigo Abd / AP

Luis Sinco

In 2005, Luis Sinco of the Los Angeles Times documented Ciudad Barrios Penitentiary in El Salvador, home to 900 gang members, many of whom have been deported from the US. Ciudad Barrios incarcerates only members of the MS-13 gang, which traces its roots to the immigrant neighborhoods west of downtown L.A.

“In the woodshop, inmates made a variety of home furnishings, most of which featured the MS-13 logo. The items sold outside the walls help supplement the prisoners’ meager food rations.”

“It was a of microcosm of L.A.’s worst nightmare transplanted. Claustrophobic, crowded tiers led to darkened, bed-less holding cells and fetid latrines overflowing with human waste.”

Multimedia here.

 

 

Moises Saman

In 2007, Moises Saman documented the anti-gang activities of Salvadorian Special Police and the inside of Chalatenango prison, El Salvador. At times Saman’s project focused on the tattoos but is more generally a traditional documentary project. More here and here.

© Moises Saman

Isabel Munoz

Much of Isabel Munoz‘s portraiture deals with markings of the body – what they reveal and conceal. For example, she has previously photographed Ethiopian women and their scarification markings. For her project Maras, Munoz shot sixty portraits in a Salvadorian prison of ex-gang-members. She also photographed the women in these mens’ lives. More here and here.

© Isabel Munoz

Christian Poveda

In El Salvador, Christian Poveda photographed and filmed Mara Salvatrucha (known as MS) and M18, the two Las Maras gangs in open conflict. Poveda wanted to describe their mutual violence and the absence of ideological or religious differences to explain their fight to the death. He described the origins of their war as “lost in the Hispanic barrios of Los Angeles” and as “an indirect effect of globalisation.”

Poveda was shot dead aged 52 as a direct consequence of his journalism. His work from El Salvador was entitled La Vida Loca. Full gallery can be seen here. B-Roll from his work can be seen here.

© Christian Poveda

More Resources

Ann T. Hathaway has collated (disturbing) information and links here about a number of prison tattoo codes.

Russian criminal tattoos have warranted their own encyclopaedia.

This is macabre. I doubt many conservators have dealt with the technical issues of this “print” medium.

Foto8: “The tattoo collection at the Department of Forensic Medicine at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland consists of 60 objects preserved in formaldehyde […] The tattoos were collected from the prisoners of the nearby state penitentiary on Montelupich Street as well as from the deceased on whom autopsies were performed.”

The tattooed skin was preserved in order to decipher the codes within the images:

In the 1970s, the CSI Department of Militia Headquarters in Warsaw published a special document only for prosecution agencies in which they analysed 2300 tattoos, including those from the collection at Jagiellonian University. For over four years, the researchers looked at prisoners, soldiers and criminals who served sentences in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Germany and the USSR. A catalogue that precisely described the meanings behind certain tattoos was created.

It should be said, figuring out what messages are involved in prison tattoos is common across all nations, systems and eras. Although, this is the first collection I know of that separated the tattoos from corpses.

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