Here’s a tale of struggle, individuality, brutality, creativity and all set against the bleak background of cold Soviet Russia.
Danzig Baldaev (who’s father was imprisoned as any enemy of the people) would regularly visit his father behind bars at the controversial prison Kresty Prison in St. Petersburg. Over the next 30 years he started to study, document and capture the tattoos that adored the other inmates at the time. These weren’t just a few tattoos here and there, we’re talking full blown bodies of work – unique to the ‘vory v zakonye’ who were in effect the most notorious of all criminals, with their own brutal rules, strict ethics & unspoken laws.
Each tattoo, had a story (not least in the way that it came into being – inmates would make DIY sharped syringes and use ink made from a mixture of melted paper, human fluids & other unknown ingredients. Health and safety wasn’t a high priority in those days…) directly connected to the experiences & horrors of the individual themselves. They serve a map of memories and trauma, a historical look at life behind bars as it were and the cut-throat attitude you needed to survive.
All of Danzig’s illustrations & stories were preserved and archived in the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volume II
- there’s now 3 volumes in total. The books have become such a revelation and so widely acclaimed that there’s even a Tumblr community that attempts to translate Baldaev’s records.
But after seeing and reading about Baldaev’s work, photographer Sergei Vasiliev served as the missing piece of the puzzle. Between 1989 and 1993 he too ventured into the notorious prison, this time not to document and decipher but to take these powerful & emotive photographers of prisoners. Putting a face to the art, a personality to the tales & adding an entirely new dimension to the documentation of one of Russia’s darkest pastimes – the unspoken art of the tattooed criminal.