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2 years ago

In the Communist era, prisoners in the Soviet Union prison system started a visual language through tattoo art. Their tattoos, which were normally inked by fellow convicts using an adapted electric shaver or radio, were shown to communicate social standing, gang they are associated to, life mistakes and interests to fellow convicts.

From the early sixties through the mid-eighties, Arkady Bronnikov, who at the time worked as a criminalistics expert at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, travelled to prisons throughout the Urals and Siberia. Bronnikov photographed inmates’ inked up bodies and interviewed them about their markings and corresponding criminal records. He learned some tattoos had certain meaning for example, a tattoo of a church or a monastery indicated a thief, with the number of cupolas reflecting the number of the inmate’s convictions. A snake encircling one’s neck signalled a drug addiction. The skull and crossbones show that a prisoner is serving a life sentence. The girl ‘catching’ her dress with a fishing line is commonly worn by rapists. Nazi symbols can mean that an inmate has fascist sympathies, but more usually they are inked as a protest towards the prison or camp administration. His resulting archive, which consists of more than nine hundred photos, helped the ministry to identify criminals and to solve cases across the country.

“Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files,” a collection of Bronnikov’s photographs accompanied by translated text from his reports, is available as a book through FUEL, and is currently on view at the Grimaldi Gavin gallery, in London.