The gallery in Wilkes Street was the perfect venue for this exhibition on Russian criminal tattoos: a cold empty warehouse type room which had been painted white quite a few years ago, the far side of the room slightly dilapidated. Yep… you were not mean to be comfortable at that one!
The drawings were grouped on large panels across the room. The tattoos served a variety of purposes: used to count how many years you served; your gang; your ‘profession’ or area of expertise; your political affiliation; etc. In some cases, the tattoos were inflicted on you as a punishment for failing to pay gambling debts or to humiliate you for the crime you’ve committed. A fair number of the tattoos were quite rude.
It’s a shame that the captions were too low down to read without hurting your back (see what I mean about making sure you weren’t comfortable) and that there was only one set of captions per panel. Thankfully, there weren’t that many people there when I was there… still, it was a bit awkward reading a few captions and then having a look at the drawings and then letting someone else have a look before you could check the next few captions.
The history behind the tattoos and how they came to light is interesting. Their coded meaning recorded by Danzig Baldaev (see fuel-design for more info) when working as a prison guard. Baldaev was often reported to the KGB but they were quite happy for him to continue his work, as it provided them with a way to break into this murky world of criminal; a way to crack their codes.
Fascinating topic… and one that we are becoming more and more familiar with thanks to films like ‘Eastern Promises’ or books like ‘The Secret Speech’.