Every now and then a book comes out that illuminates a part of the world that was not only previously hidden but which could not even be imagined. Such a work is the _Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia_ (Steidl / Fuel), featuring mostly the drawings of tattoos by Danzig Baldaev, with photos by Sergei Vasiliev, and an explanatory essay by Alexei Plutser-Sarno. In these photos and tattoos, which I guarantee you are like nothing you have ever seen before, are reflected the horrors of Russia written on the skins of criminals. As strange as the pictures are, they are not so foreign as to eliminate sadness and tragedy; this is a book of devastation on many levels, and anyone flipping through the images will be enlightened about a very distant world, but also will be distressed and mystified.
The majority of pages are Danzig Baldaev's drawings of tattoos he has collected during a lifetime as a prison attendant. The book could not be published before, but Baldaev has brought it out now as a protest of the "long time all of us lived under the leadership of villains, tricksters, and bandits." There are what are called "legitimate thieves" in Russia. They represent a robber caste, criminals who have their own code of laws and obey it. It is in some part hereditary; there are tattoos here that proclaim proudly "My father was a thief." The legitimate thieves have a strict hierarchy that extends inside and out of prison, and are reputed to have representatives in all levels of the government and police. They have special control of life in "the zone", the prison camps, where most of the tattoos are applied. The tattoos are a type of uniform and a service record. In prison slang, someone's tattoos are known as his (or her) "tail coat with medals." The initiated may read on the criminal's body his crimes, his duration of imprisonment within the zone, his sexual proclivities, and much more. It might seem that bearing the initials of the Unified State Political Administration would attest the bearer's interest in keeping to the party line, but they actually stand for "Oh, God, help me to escape!" A tattoo may testify to "God," but only because the letters of that name are the initials for "I shall rob again." The anti-communist nature of many of these tattoos is obvious. From Lenin to Yeltsin, leaders are depicted as wolves, pigs, or rapists. These convicts are not dissidents, just outcasts who reject any sort of authority except that of their own brotherhood. Grotesquely anti-Semitic pictures of devils have a strange twist; they demonize the Jewish leaders who started the communist state. A swastika means not Nazism but anarchism.
The tattoos show a horrifying eagerness for violence against women, Jews, and politicians. They are funny sometimes, but also bitterly cruel. The photographs of the bearers, however, show tired or shy faces, or even angelic ones with eyes looking heavenward. This is a disturbing and astonishing book of a subculture and a way of life still playing a role in current affairs.