SERGEI VASILIEV (1936-2021) started his photography career when he worked for the police in Chelyabinsk, Siberia, as a part of the Criminal Investigation Unit during the 1960s. He was tasked with photographing the incarcerated men and women to create a record for Russian police, but his interest in photography meant the photos he captured are far more than mugshots. His photos are more like portraits, showing glimpses of their outside lives and inside personas. Vasiliev became fascinated with their tattoos and began photographing them so that the police could get a better understanding of the underworld language they spoke. He describes how the more, and more detailed, tattoos a prisoner had, the higher their rank in the social hierarchy, with the most untouchable having their tattoos removed by force. Prisoners would completely undress in order to show Vasiliev their tattoos, accomplishments which they wore with pride. His photography was recognized and exhibited internationally, and he published more than 20 books in his lifetime. His photos are featured in the Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive Book published by FUEL, and you can check out some of those below, along with an interview with the photographer.
Mikhail Kovanev, poet, artist, and musician, was serving a sentence of fifteen years for murder. He claimed he was innocent of this charge. Every part of his body was covered with tattoos, many of his own design. The eyes on the stomach mean that he was a homosexual (the penis makes the ‘nose’ of the face). In the colony, he became a drug addict and was subsequently killed.
These tattoos are in the ‘traditional’ style: a large central tattoo covering the chest and stomach area. The central motif is based on Raphael’s Madonna from the Sistine Chapel. This was a popular thieves’ ‘talisman’, reserved only for the highest ranking areas of the body.
Traditionally tattoos bearing images of Lenin and Stalin were usually tattooed onto the chest, it was a commonly held belief that Communist firing squads were not permitted to shoot at an image of their leaders. Text above Lenin reads ‘Wake up Ilyich (Lenin)’, above the tiger ‘They (criminals) are getting brazen’.
The tattoo on the shoulder of a spider in a cobweb can carry different meanings: if the spider is climbing up the web then the bearer of the tattoo is fully committed to a life of crime, if it is climbing down the wearer is attempting to break free of their criminal lifestyle.
This convict’s tattoos were applied in the camps of the Urals where the tattoo artists produce work of exceptional quality. Because they were so held in such high regard, criminals often attempted to be transferred there in order to be tattooed. The dollar bill on the shoulder signifies the bearer’s commitment to a life of crime.
The text at the top of the thigh reads: ‘The earth is empty without you’. The ‘Made in CCCP’ tattoo on the right breast is the state quality mark of the USSR. This symbol was only applied to consumer goods of the ‘highest quality’. The rose tangled in barbed wire on the shoulder, denotes that the bearer celebrated their 16th or 18th birthday in the ‘zone’.
This convicts apparently random tattoos denote his rank within the criminal world. They embody a thief’s complete ‘service record’, his entire biography, detailing all of his achievements and failures, his promotions and demotions, his ‘secondments’ to jail and his ‘transfers’ to different types of ‘work’. A thief’s tattoos are his ‘passport’, ‘case file’, ‘awards record’, ‘diplomas’ and ‘epitaphs’. In this world a man with no tattoos has no social status whatsoever. Across the chest ‘Death is not vengeance / the dead don’t suffer’. On the arms ‘I live in sin / I die laughing’.
Orthodox religious tattoos are still among the most popular among criminals today. The crucifix and the Madonna and Child, depicted in the Orthodox tradition of icon painting, meant ‘my conscience is clean before my friends’, ‘I will not betray’. The Madonna signified ‘prison is my home’ – that the wearer was a multiple offender and recidivist. The number of domes on the tattoo of a church indicates the number of convictions. If a dome was adorned with a cross, it meant that the sentence had been served in full. As well as being a totem of a pickpocket, the scarab beetle is considered to bring luck to the wearer, these are usually tattooed on the hands, rarely (as in this image) they appear on other parts of the body.
The tattoos across the eyelids read ‘Do not / Wake me’. The genie on the forearm is a common symbol of drug addiction. If an addict is imprisoned for drug offenses, he or she will have to go through withdrawal in the ‘zone’ (prison). Epaulet tattoos (on the shoulders) display the criminal’s rank in a system that mirrors that of the army (major, colonel, general etc).
This inmate was convicted for drug related crimes. ‘Gott mit uns‘: ‘God with us’ was a rallying cry of both the Russian empire and the Third Reich. The Nazi Iron Cross expresses ‘I don’t care about anybody’. This symbol of aggression and insubordination is often tattooed on the chest tattooed as if hung on a chain. The barbed wore on the forehead denotes that the bearer ‘will never be corrected’.
The tattoo on the neck reads ‘I don’t need happiness’, beneath the neck ‘I live in sin, I die laughing’. The scar on this criminals face is usually forcibly applied as a punishment to any convict who has informed or betrayed his fellow inmates.
This prisoner’s tattoos display his anger and bitterness towards Communist power; the tattoos on the face signify that he never expects to go free. He works as a stoker. Text under the eyes reads ‘Full / of Love’; on the chin ‘Danger of Death’; around the neck ‘To each his own’; above each head of the double-headed snake ‘Wife’ and ‘Mother-in-law’; on the chest ‘It is not for you whores, to dig in my soul’; on his arm ‘Communists, suck my dick for my ruined youth’.
The tattoo on the chest is a ‘grin’ at the authorities, the text above and below reads ‘If I can’t crush them with my strength / I will crush them with my rage’. The number of barbs on the wire equal the number of years in the sentence. The manacles on this prisoner’s wrist signify a sentence of five years or longer.
The dagger through the neck shows that the prisoner committed murder while in prison, and that he is available to ‘hire’ for further murders. The bells on the feet indicate that he served his time in full (‘to the bell’), the manacles on the ankles mean that the sentences were over five years. ‘Ring’ tattoos on the fingers show the status of the criminal when the rest of his body is covered. The ‘thieves’ stars’ on the knees carry the symbolic meaning ‘I will not kneel before the police’.
The eyes on the top of the chest signify ‘I can see everything’ and ‘I am watching’. Text across the chest reads ‘Son of the criminal world’. This photograph shows tattoos in a combination of old and new styles. In the ‘new’ style a large number of almost random images on the convict’s body. In the ‘traditional’ style there is one large central tattoo on the chest, filling as much space as possible.
The epaulet and the spider on the shoulders denote a high-ranking criminal. The text across the chest reads: ‘O Lord, forgive me for the tears of my mother’. On the right side of the bearer’s chest is a tattooed 100-ruble note, usually signifying involvement in counterfeiting and commitment to criminal life.
A group of convicts imprisoned for drug-related crimes. Convict (left) on both arms: ‘I live in sin / I die laughing’. Images of demons and monsters are intended to intimidate other inmates and give significance to the bearer within his circle. Convict (centre) German text below the neck: ‘God with us’; on the left arm: ‘Hurry up and live’. The sailing ship on the forearm signifies a lust for freedom and that the bearer is a potential escapee. Convict (right) on upper arm: ‘Keep love’; on forearm: ‘KRAB’: Klyanus Rezat Aktivistov i Blyadey (I swear to kill activists and sluts). The rose on the shoulder means that the bearer turned eighteen in prison.
The epaulette tattooed on the shoulder, the thieves’ stars and religious tattoos on the chest all denote this thief’s high rank. The skull in the centre of the epaulette can be deciphered as: ‘I am not and will never be a slave, no one can force me to work’. ‘YK’ indicates the bearer has been through the ‘Intensive Colony’.
The knife through the neck shows that this criminal committed murder in prison and is available to hire for further murders. The drops of blood can signify the number of murders committed. The Latin text on the handle of the knife reads ‘As long as I breathe, I hope’.
Prison is this thief’s home, he is of the highest rank in the thieves’ social hierarchy. His ring tattoos show that he was the only underage detainee in his circle of thieves, and that he is an ‘anti-social’: an inveterate transgressor of the prison regime, who completely refuses to work. The text on the arm reads ‘Communism only produces victims’.