Russian Criminal Tattoo portraits

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Bring me home, please

This morning i went to the press view of Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union at the Saatchi Gallery and I'm not sure that the artists participating to the exhibition heartily agree with Joseph Stalin's statement. Although this survey of contemporary art in Russia contains humour, balls and a few satisfyingly good pieces, the show is not exactly cheerful.

Take the gentlemen portrayed by Sergei Vasiliev. Their skin is their biopic: each of their tattoos carries political messages and details about their criminal life. The motifs were drawn using whichever tools and ink they could get their hands on: melted books, urine, blood, etc.

Vasiliev worked both as a photographer for a newspaper in Chelyabinsk and as a prison warden when he encountered the work of Danzig Baldaev. Baldaev was the son of an ethnographer who was arrested as an "enemy of the people", he grew up in an orphanage and spent over 30 years working in the Soviet penal system. Baldaev recorded the horrors of the Gulag in dozens of drawings but he gained fame for his meticulous documentation of the tattoos etched on the skin of the inmates. His notes and part of the 3,000 drawings he made of the tattoos are published in 3 volumes entitled Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia: Volume I, Volume II and Volume III.

Photographs by Sergei Vasiliev are featured in the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia. Now they are also at the Saatchi Gallery where they are covering the walls of one of the exhibition rooms:

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.12, 2010

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.10, 2010

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.8, 2010

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.5, 2010

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.4, 2010

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.15, 2010

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.20, 2010

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.13, 2010

More photos on the website of Fuel Design.

Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia, Saatchi Gallery, London, runs from November 21 2012 till May 5 2013. Don't miss the accompanying show upstairs Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art, 1960-80s, it has some stunning works.

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