Soviet prisoners had a secret language – tattoos. Will Hodgkinson deciphers the hidden meaning of skulls, cats, grins and swastikas
Danzig Baldaev grew up in a Russian children's home, his father having been denounced as an enemy of the people. He was later ordered to take a job as a warden in Kresty, an infamous Leningrad prison, where he worked from 1948 to 1981. It was a job that allowed Baldaev to continue his father's work as an ethnographer – by documenting the tattoos of criminals. Heavy with symbolism and hidden meanings, the tattoos depicted a complex world of hierarchies, disgraces and achievements. Mostly anti-Soviet and frequently obscene, they are a portal into a violent world that ran alongside the worst excesses of the Communist era.
The KGB found out about Baldaev's tattoo project but, incredibly, they sanctioned it. "They realised the value of being able to establish the facts about a convict or criminal: his date and place of birth, the crimes he had committed, the camps where he had served time, and even his psychological profile," Baldaev wrote, shortly before his death in 2005.
Baldaev's archive of criminal tattoo drawings would probably have died alongside its creator had Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell of the design publishers Fuel not heard about it from a Russian literary agent. "We visited his widow, Valentina, in her tiny flat in the St Petersburg suburbs, where all of these drawings were stacked in bin liners," says Murray. "She didn't know what to do with them, but she was concerned that her family would throw them out when she died. So we bought them off her."
Having published three volumes of Baldaev's drawings in the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia series, Murray and Sorrell are now launching their first exhibition, giving the public a chance to see the original drawings for the first time. In effect, the tattoos formed a service record of a criminal's transgressions. Skulls denoted a criminal authority. A cat represented a thief. On a woman, a tattoo of a penis was the kitemark of a prostitute. Crosses on knuckles denoted the number of times the wearer had been to prison, and a shoulder insignia marked solitary confinement, while a swastika represented not a fondness for fascism but a refusal to accept the rules of prison society.
A criminal with no tattoos was devoid of status, but to have a tattoo when you hadn't earned it – bearing the skull sign of a criminal authority, for example – often resulted in the tattoo being forcibly removed with a scalpel by fellow prisoners. And "grins" (depicting communist leaders in obscene or comical positions) were a way for criminal to put two fingers up at the authorities.
"The grin is a bravado thing," Murray says. "Tattooing was illegal in prisons, so prisoners made tattoos by melting down boot heels and mixing the solution with blood and urine. Having an anti-Soviet grin was a way of saying, 'I'm the toughest guy around.' A lot of these guys knew they would never be released from prison, so they couldn't care less what the authorities did to them."
The Soviet dissident and writer Eduard Kuznetsov cites an extreme example of this in his 1975 memoir, Prison Diaries. Kuznetsov writes about a con who was operated on by prison authorities three times against his will to remove a tattoo on his forehead. The first tattoo read: Khrushchev's Slave. The second: Slave of the USSR. The third: Slave of the CPSU (Communist party). "Now, after three operations," wrote Kuznetsov, "the skin is so tightly stretched . . . he can no longer close his eyes. We call him The Stare."
Then there are the tattoos that were made against the wearer's will. "Obscene tattoos on men were often tattooed forcibly on passive homosexuals, or people that lost at cards," says Murray. Worse than this was a seemingly innocuous heart inside a white triangle – the sign of a child rapist. Bearing this meant being an untouchable, and subject to the sexual whims of other prisoners.
Today, tattoos are a fashion accessory. The images Baldaev captured had significance and told a story. What's most intriguing is why this prison guard, who calculated that he lost 58 members of his family to Soviet torture and oppression, wanted to document criminal tattoos and scenes from gulag life in the first place. Following conversations with Baldaev's widow, Murray has concluded that it was a moral response to the excesses of the Communist era.
While accepting that the state had sanctioned his work, Baldaev had no sympathies with the regime. "Ideological lies, skilfully devised international conflicts, the humiliation of people, the denial of the right to a dignified life – or to life itself. These are the sins of the state," he wrote. "They are manifest in the world of the prisons and camps, in the terrible plague patches of tattoos."
"Danzig's father was an enemy of the people," says Murray, "so Danzig grew up in an orphanage for the enemy of the people. Then the government told him he was working as a prison officer, guarding enemies of the people. He went home to his tiny flat at night and did these drawings on the kitchen table. He did manage to get a few published here and there, but he wasn't doing it for the money. This was his way of making sense of the world he was in."
Tattoos of the world
Popular with sailors, the swallow reflects a wish to come home safely. Traditionally, a sailor only had a swallow tattooed on his chest after completing 5,000 nautical miles.
In Japanese mythology, when the koi swims to the gate of heaven it is transformed into a dragon. As a tattoo, the koi represents luck, power, strength and individuality, and, most of all, braving the obstacles in life to achieve your goals.
Originating from the Chicano gangs of California, the teardrop below the eye originally signified the wearer had killed someone. Now it can signify the loss of a loved one or time spent in prison.
Symbolising courage, freedom and the supernatural, for British and American sailors the dragon tattoo marks the crossing of the international date line, or serving in China.