Behind the scene of Russia's prison
Russia's criminal tattoos have become a kind of art in Russia. Danzig Baldaev's drawings were a gateway into a secret world in which he acted as ethnographer, recording the rituals of a closed criminal society.
Born in the early 20th century in communist Russia, Danzig Baldayev grew up witnessing and being subject to the corruption and routine sub-human treatment which was prevalent at that time. After being ordered to work in “Kresty”- an infamous Russian prison, he discovered tattooing and by firstly drawing designs he came across, his curiosity developed into an obsession. What he went on to create over the next 50 years was a collosal photographic archive of Russian Prison Tattoos behind and infront of the bars, across both men and in some cases women, showcasing the distinct ominous style of Russian Prison Tattooing.
The intimacy shown within his relationship with his subjects is what makes his collection so intriguing and revered; no-one at the time had attempted to or been granted such access to the Russian underworld, let alone with the intention to document and share it with the generally misunderstanding outsiders beyond their world. His subjects: incarcerated or otherwise display little reserve, and react to the trust earned by Baldaev by appearing to exist as naturally as any literal or metaphorical outsider would be permitted to see them.
The art of Russian Prison Tattooing transcended the western prison protocol of loudly & conspicuously displaying resentment and bitterness; on the contrary it served as a complex and universal language in which ones life could be shared publicly through the power of symbology. Everything from why you were incarcerated, crimes committed, reformed lifestyles, habits and even sexuality could be deduced from the ultra specific placement, direction, sizing and accompaniment of the tattoo’s. A tattooed man had nothing to hide, in the same way a man devoid of tattoo’s simplydid not exist- and did so at the mercy of his peers. The tattoo’s were undoubtably created within the vein of heirachy & honor; and those who worked outside of this paid accordingly. Accounts of manual removal of tattoos not earned by wearers were not uncommon…
Baldaev Published “Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia I, II & III” as well as “Drawings from the Gulag”