The Mark of Cain - Russian Criminal Tattoos

Published: 29 January, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 221, February, 2013

In 2001, a documentary that uncovered the dying art of Russian criminal tattoos was released called The Mark of Cain. It is a brilliant and objective piece of documentary filmmaking that has had a subtle, yet profound influence on the tattoo world since then. The director/ producer, Alix Lambert, is an artist based in New York City, and I was eager to find out more from her.

All my work starts with an idea, so whether it’s sculpture, film or mixed media, it is in the service of the idea. The Mark of Cain was very much a break from the conceptual artwork I had been doing. I appear in a lot of my earlier fine art work, but with the subject in Cain I felt it was important not to. It needed a different kind of approach. It had a broader audience than I was used to and was the first feature-length documentary that I had made.

“I had a pretty much non-existent budget to make Cain, but a very dear friend of mine, Rob Bingham, who has since died, gave me $40,000. We took 30 of it to Russia and put ten of it in the bank, and shot the film for 30. I was then later given an additional 30 for post-production from Roberto Edwards who founded the Fundacion America, an organisation based in Chile that supports projects having to do with body modification. The Mark of Cain cost around $100,000, which is a nearly impossible budget. People didn’t get paid. I wouldn’t want to do that now, because you can only ask for that sort of kindness once.”

I was interested to know why Alix picked tattoos as a subject to investigate, particularly prison tattoos. “I’ve always been interested in non-verbal ways of communicating. This was a complete language and it was dying out. I wanted to document it.”

I asked if it had been a scary experience at all. “I had my crew with me, so I didn’t feel scared. Everyone was nice to me in the prison. They even gave me gifts. I’m not naïve; I was aware that these were people that were murderers, embezzlers. But I never felt that I was in any personal danger.

“Even though it was only 12 years ago, it was a different time back then. I had no cell phone, we also had no internet. There was no contact with the outside world, so we were completely immersed in what we were doing. I think I made a call home from Moscow once. That was it. You’re gone, so your entire world changes. You’re in a very intense situation. It was strange talking to people when I got home because nothing had changed for them. It was hard to connect at first because it seemed like their concerns weren’t so great… it isolates you, but at the same time I feel more comfortable working on projects that address some social issue. It grounds me.

“I first heard about the tattoos through my friend Steven Parrino. He had cut an article out of a magazine for me about them because he felt I’d be interested, and of course I was. In America, we have tattoos that have meanings, of course, but nothing like the language that the Russian prisoners had.

It’s an extensive language that the prisoners can communicate to each other without the prison guards knowing, and so therefore it is a rapidly changing language. Once the meaning is known, then it evolves. So that to me was very interesting, and it was also visually stunning. I’ve been back since and it has pretty much died out.

“The History Channel wanted me to go back, and so I went back about ten years later. I ended up going to a lot of ex-convict homes to find tattoos. In the film, you see at the end that the concerns of the new younger generation of prisoners are wearing Adidas track suits and money has become their currency for status behind bars. Outside of the prisons in Russia, tattooing exists as it does everywhere else; you get your girlfriends’ name or whatever, but the camp tattoos are gone. There were certain people I was looking for and was excited to find. When I returned ten years later I found one of the men I had interviewed in Cain. In the original interview he had just been released. When I found him ten years later, he had stayed out of prison and was working construction.

“Tattoos have meaning in other places, for example, the Yakuza in Japan. This interests me. America and Russia have the biggest prison systems in the world. Prison reform is something I care about deeply; the US should not be proud of their prison system. The reason I pre-emptively said that about America is that sometimes with Q&As after The Mark of Cain, people would say, ‘well don’t you realise America also has an awful prison system?’ and I’d never said that America didn’t! From what I do understand about American prison tattoos, there is not as extensive of a language as in Russian prisons.

The British publisher, Fuel, released three volumes of Russian prison tattoo encyclopedias, which are worth getting your hands on. They are very beautiful. At this time, those encyclopaedias and the film that I made were really all there was on the subject.

“Occasionally people will email me and tell me they’re getting a Russian prison tattoo because they saw my documentary and that upsets me. These prisoners got them for very specific reasons and getting an ‘un-earned’ tattoo carries serious consequences. It’s not a fashion statement. There are clothing lines that have come out as well. It shows a lack of understanding. But it happens.”

I was curious to know a little more about the caste system in the Russian prisons, particularly those on the lowest rung of the ladder. “I wasn’t able to interview any of the prisoners that were in the lowest caste. They didn’t want to speak on camera because the stakes were higher for them. I’m not interested in talking to somebody that doesn’t want to talk. When someone’s life is terrible, I don’t want to make it even worse. You see a couple of down-casts in the film, but they don’t identify themselves as down-casts. A lot of them have facial tattoos. There was one person we spoke to in the film, and although he didn’t identify himself as a down-cast, I could see that his tattoos were very low-ranking tattoos. That was interesting. But as a team making a documentary, we never labelled anyone unless we were 100 percent sure of what they were. You will see half-naked women tattooed on the upper bodies of high-ranking prisoners, but if a half-naked woman is shown on the lower body then that is more of an indication of a down-cast; also, if there are eyes tattooed above the penis. Once you are a down-cast, you will be marked. If you don’t submit to it, it’ll be forced upon you.”

I recently saw the David Cronenberg film, Eastern Promises, which tells the story of a man (played by Viggo Mortensen) working undercover in the Russian mafia in London. One of the lasting memories of the film is the attention to the tattoos, and so I was interested to know whether Alix had anything to do with the film or not. “Viggo Mortensen is somebody that I’ve known for many years, pre-dating Eastern Promises. I did a short piece on him for PBS on Viggo’s work as a poet and photographer, which didn’t air because the show got cancelled, but we became friends then. People naturally assumed we met over Eastern Promises. But anyway, he took my film to David Cronenberg and they watched it and used it as source material. I was over for a few days when they were filming which was a real treat for me because I’m a fan of Cronenberg. I thought they made a beautiful film.”

Due to time constraints I unfortunately had to bring our interview to an end, but I’d like to suggest to readers that they keep a look out for other films/ books/ art installations that Alix has created and/or will be creating. Visit her website at


Text: Tom Abbott; Photography: Courtesy of Alix Lambert