From Russia With Love

Published: 21 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 193, December, 2010

Over the last six years, London based Fuel Publishing, have produced and published the best-selling Russian Tattoo Encyclopaedia series of books. The three publications, showcasing Russian criminal tattoos, have not only proved popular amongst tattoo enthusiasts but are so detailed and informative that film director, David Cronenberg, used them as reference for his 2007 movie Eastern Promise, starring Viggo Mortensen.

When the first volume of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, published in 2002, proved so successful, editors Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell travelled to St. Petersburg to meet with Baldaev’s widow. It was here they discovered that she kept the remainder of his drawings in bin bags and boxes secreted around her tiny flat. Keen to show the images to a wider audience, Murray and Sorrell bought all the remaining original tattoo drawings (around 600 sheets) and put together the second and third volumes in the series.

During November, Fuel held an exhibition in Spitalfields, to showcase 120 of the original ink drawings used in the series as well as 16 photographic prints by Sergei Vasiliev.

The sketches on show at the exhibition, were drawn by Danzig Baldaev over a thirty year period between 1946 and 1986, while he was a prison attendant at Russia’s biggest prison in Leningrad - Kresty (‘the Crosses’). It was during his time at Kresty that Baldaev was able to speak with other guards and prisoners to establish an accurate history of the inmates and their tattoos.

It was Baldaev’s father, an ethnologist, who suggested that his son document and study the tattoos that surrounded Baldaev on a daily basis. Following his advice, Baldaev would make quick sketches and brief notes about the tattoos while he was at work and then he would then take these roughs home to his flat, where he would work on them in great detail using pen and ink, often late into the night. This not only enabled him to make a unique study of the truly criminal portion of the prison population but his investigations were of value, as they were able to tell the authorities the history and status of a criminal from the images on his body. Here were some of Russia’s most dangerous criminals and gang members, opening up a very private and select world. Unsurprisingly, Baldaev had the full support of the KGB.

Russian criminal tattoos are a complex system of symbols that represent everything you have ever done in your past, so the wearer can be read like a book; kind of like a rap sheet the police are fond of compiling. Not only are the symbols important but where they are located is important too. New gang members will often get a tattoo in the centre of their chest, a central and easily identifiable place, to show which gang or criminal family they were associated with.

Each tattoo worn was earned, a status symbol or a badge of honour, for example, if an inmate had a tattoo of a cat and a dagger, one could safely assume that not only was he a thief (the cat) but he was also a sex offender (the dagger). An odd combination granted but at least everyone knew where they stood. A church, normally placed on the hand, back or chest, would represent prison with the number of spires representing how many years had been served.

Of course it all gets a little more complicated than cats, daggers and churches. In fact it gets pretty damn complicated! And when your life depends on whether you just got those skulls on your shoulders because they look good, or whether they actually mean you are a high ranking officer in the Russian Mafia, knowing your symbols is important. Especially considering that getting tattoos that you didn’t deserve ran you the risk of getting them forcibly removed with a scalpel, or burnt off with a solution of magnesium powder. Puts a whole new slant on the subject of tattoo removal!

Another way that the tattoos were used by the criminals, was as a way to kick back at the government and the establishment. Many of the tattoos are political, showing the hated leaders of Russia as demons or animals, while a supported party or leader would be shown as powerful and strong.

What stands out about the tattoos shown in the books and exhibition, is that even though they look like they have been done by an amateur, they are powerful. The simple black and blue lines stand out in stark contrast to the white and emaciated bodies of the prisoners.

Alongside Baldaev’s sketches at the exhibition, are photographs by Sergei Vasiliev, a fellow warden at the prison. Vasiliev’s black-and-white photographs are an important document of Baldaev’s illustrations, originally taken to confirm the sketches’ authenticity, but ultimately becoming works of importance in their own right. In his portraits, not only are the tattoos shown in the context that Baldaev saw them, but the hardship the inmates underwent is clearly seen, etched across their faces. Here, Vasiliev captures that “thousand yard stare” normally reserved for battle weary soldiers, or people who have seen more than they should have in their lives.


The Books

The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volumes I, II and III are available from Fuel’s website And for those who are interested in the prisons and the conditions the inmates lived under, Danzig Baldaev’s stories and illustrations of prison life are collected in the book Drawings from the Gulag also available from Fuel.


Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Drawings: Fuel & Danzig Baldaev; Photography: Fuel & Sergei Vasiliev