One of the last films directed by David Cronenberg, Eastern Promises, was an approach to the subworld of the Russian Mafia families that we barely know anything about for obvious reasons. Leaving the story and the plot aside, there was something which caught my interest right away: the importance of tattoos.
For many years tattoos have been related to sailors, prisoners, criminals…disreputable people in general. This is a supporting confirmation of such belief.
We all are aware of the Japanese Yakuza families, and the hierarchic distinction marked by tattoos. In the case of Russian mafia this tattoo language is fascinating.
Every symbol has a meaning, and the location of certain pieces determine the rank within the family.
Thus, for instance cats mean pickpockets, the number of domes in churches have to do with prison sentence years, and bats are related to criminal acts at night.
Danzig Baldayev had to work in Kresty, an infamous Leningrad prison, for 33 years. Getting acquainted with the convicts and observing a pattern in tattoos, from 1948 he made over 3000 drawings of their tattoos, recording codes and writing down all sort of information.
His relationship with the inmates had to be very close and special he managed to obtain such secret information. Seems kind of unreal such dangerous people allowed Danzig to access to their world so easily.
For some time he was ordered by his superiors to quit his activity until KGB realized how valuable his illustrations were as a resource to understand the codes of the criminals.
On the other hand, Sergei Vasiliev, a photographer who used to work for the newspaper Vecherny Chelyabinsk, spent 4 years (1989-1993) taking pictures of tattooed Soviet prisoners in prisons and reformatories settled in Chelyabinsk, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Tagil and Perm.
As you can observe, the results were amazing.
On one hand this was the confirmation of the language code inherent in the tattoos remained intact throughout the years, and on the other, all the information compiled by Baldayev was proved in individuals.
Saatchi Gallery in London exhibits selected works by the photographer.
The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia divided into 3 volumes include many of Baldayev’s illustrations combined with Vasiliev’s photographies, being this collection a unique document including tattoos and codes, proving the existence of this occult disguised and hidden language even more remarkable in the Soviet era, when the individual was repressed and mute.
If you are into tattoos, these three volumes are a must, and if you are not, I think they are worth having a look anyway, so as to learn a different language and culture. At the end of the day the evil and dark side is always the most appealing.