Skin Trade

Brezhnev's blow job, written in flesh

But by and large these are obvious interpretations, and ones Baldaev would surely find superficial at best. For in Russia's prisons, we are told, a tat is rarely just a tat.

Perhaps it's best to abandon your instincts. As we are told in an introductory essay by the Russian scholar Alexei Plutser-Sarno, copulation scenes--rather than signaling sexual triumph or desire--instead served as the ultimate punishment, a tarring act that deprived a thief of status and, presumably, security. Images of Orthodox churches similarly denoted not religious piety or longing but criminal prowess. And words carry their own hidden meanings. For instance, bog--Russian for God--was actually an acronym for budu opyat grabit--"I will steal again."

Then there are the individual drawings. Skulls, suits of spades, and eagle wings signified a thief with the experience to back it up; crosses referred to either the number of sentences or an unfulfilled vendetta; cats were synonymous with agility and luck; other feline symbols such as lions, panthers, and tigers indicated an authority figure; and so it went down the line.

Courtesy Russian Tattoo Encyclopedia

Yet these markings brought with them serious responsibility. If asked, "Do you stand by your tattoos?" a prisoner had better damn well be prepared to say yes and mean it. (Unless, that is, he/she bore tattoos on a higher-up's behalf. Some prisoners served as mere human parchment, delivering living letters from one crime boss to another.) For above all else, the thieves' world was a caste system. And though the authorities thought these vermin beyond state "reform," their laws were strict and binding.

Even more intriguing are the thieves' talisman symbols. Found primarily on the hands and fingers, these small ink stamps revealed everything from childhood upbringing and sexual preferences to past convictions, prison status, and number of attempted escapes. In this presumably pocketless world, body art served as a wallet, passport, work permit, and business card rolled into one. (The ability to decipher this language, incidentally, has helped Baldaev carve out a small career as a "tattoo interpreter" for the post-Soviet police.)


To be sure, this is intricate stuff and, as we learn, the average prisoner wasn't running around with a needle humming songs from Tattoo You. Applying these labyrinthine designs were the kol'shchiki or "zone prickers." But Encyclopaedia offers few details about them or their methods other than to say these individuals were skilled, knowledgeable, and very highly prized.

Also left to guesswork is the complicity of the prison authorities in this beastly society. I can't speak for Baldaev, but in Solzhenitsyn's memorable phrasing, "the tattooed chests" were merely "the rear ends" of their keepers. The thieves thrived because--together with their guards and the outside authorities--they shared a common mission: keeping the innocents down and sharing in the spoils. The main difference being that some of the thieves could remove their uniforms at night and others could not.

Ultimately, Encyclopaedia is a book concerned with the growing influence of the thieves in today's society. The somewhat more recent photographs of the vory don't necessarily show men and women with glowing health and robust futures. These people are clearly not the inheritors of a glitzy new criminal underworld alive with limitless graft and annual BMW upgrades. The thieves we see here, sagging and hollowed out, are walking museum pieces--by turns bitter, haunted, and defeated.

You wonder if, perhaps, the cloistered and occult world of the thieves hasn't been somewhat left behind, their markings fated to be replaced by meaningless tattoos of Kharly Devidsons and the like. Yet it's clear that the basic tenets behind the thieves' culture--power and plunder--maintain a powerful hold. Baldaev and his contributors argue that the legacy and ethos of the criminal caste is ubiquitous in modern Russia--in its songs, films, novels, dress, and speech.

Another way to put it is that the Mafia has gone mainstream. Their stamp, far from fading, is everywhere.

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