Photography by: Sergei Vasiliev
The Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive is hosted by: FUEL
There is a reason that Russian tattoos are the most feared and respected thing in prison society. Far from being merely personal, they carry a burden of meaning that is used as a highly coded form of communication to tell a story of each inmate’s corrupted past.
A sharpened guitar string is attached to an adapted electric shaver, while scorched rubber is mixed with a convict’s own urine to create the tattoo pigment. Since tattooing is forbidden by prison authorities, the practice has been forced into the unsanitary conditions of the underground.
Russian tattoos can be thought of like a military decoration, they can only be awarded after a crime has been committed. For instance, a tattoo of a dagger through the neck symbolizes that a convict has murdered someone while in prison and is now a hitman available for hire. So if you see that guy roaming the prison showers, whatever you do, don’t look in his fucking eyes.
The more tattoos a convict has, the more sentences he has served, and the more respect you better goddamn give him. A face tattoo shows that the bearer doesn’t expect to live out his sentence, and usually involves a tattoo with the phrase “Don’t wake me up” on the eyelids. The process of getting this is a torment in itself as it requires a metal spoon to be inserted under the eyelid so the tattoo needle won’t pierce the eyeball.
When a new prisoner enters a cell he is immediately asked “Do you stand by your tattoos?” If there is even a flicker of hesitation, word will be passed around to other convicts that a counterfeit criminal is wearing a false tattoo. Faced with the choice between removing it or a consequence of beating, rape and death, he will be given a brick or an old razor blade and told to remove it.
Tattoos can also be used to stigmatize, and punish individuals in the criminal society who have failed to pay debts, broken the criminal code, or convicted of child rape (which is heavily disappproved of by other criminals). Often sexually explicit images will be forcibly applied on a snitche’s forehead to both humiliate him and warn others what the rat is capable of.
Tattoos serve as the only rule of law in a society beyond the shackles of conventional law. For a newcomer they can literally be the deciding factor between life or finding yourself on the wrong end of a shank. Photographer Sergei Vasiliev has photographed hundreds of inmates across prison systems that have been added to an impressive collection called The Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive, managed by FUEL design group.
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