The extensive lexicon of drawings on display at 4 Wilkes street represent the life’s work of the late Danzig Baldaev. The son of an ethnographer, Baldaev was encouraged by his father that if someone didn’t capture the folklore of Russian criminal life then the understanding of this art would go with the prisoners to the grave. The result is an extensive and lexicographic hand drawn document which rigorously records the history of the prison tattoo. Alongside the simple pen drawings are photographs by Sergei Vasiliev of some of the prisoners in question.
These symbols of life in Russian “correction” facilities are a troubling blend of fact and allegory. The aspects of life that one might expect – pain, violence and aggression are tempered by images of love, religious piety, camaraderie and running through it all is a streak of deeply dark humour.
The subdivisions of images possess the clinical rigour we might expect from the son of an ethnographer. Each tattoo is described according to the particular class it’s owner belongs to- the addict, the prostitute, the thief or the gang tattoo. Within these classes there are still further subdivisions such as “Grins” which are anti-authoritarian statements worn by thieves.
What is evident from Baldaev’s descriptions is that these markings were vehicles for acquiring status in the criminal community. Like much important art the prison tattoo is indicative of the structures of power within the particular element of society in which it exists. Many of the examples cited in Wilkes Street markers of rights of passage or acts of protest within the prison community. An image of a sexually aroused devil figure injecting a bleeding heart marked one prisoners first use of intravenous drugs within the institution and is inscribed with the date. Another tattoo consisting almost entirely of text marks the bearer spending 100 days in solitary confinement.
The photography, which accompanies the drawings, is deeply visceral. They have the air of authenticity which much portraiture of outsider communities lacks. One has a sense of the pride taken in the living canvas that their body has become. In some cases it is apparent that the tattoo has become the most prominent visual subject of the photograph beyond the body that hosts it.
Viewers may question whether Baldaev's illustrations and Vasiliev’s photographs are simply an ethnographer’s objective description of a folkloric art form, or were intended as anti-Soviet polemic. The answer I suppose is both. The phenomenon Russian prison brutality is at one and the same time a national and personal tragedy but one that is ultimately written upon the body of the individual.
-- Mike Tuck
All images courtesy FUEL Design & Publishing
Drawings by Danzig Baldaev, Photographs were taken by Sergei Vasiliev between 1990 and 1993 at various prisons and camps across Russia
© FUEL / Danzig Baldaev / Sergei Vasiliev