Saturday, March 3, 2007


I recently finished the second volume of the Encyclopedia of Russian Criminal Tattoos by Baldaev and Valsiliev. (It was a gift from my wife-- don't ask.)

For over fifty years, Baldaev worked in the Russian prison camps where he studied and recorded the tattoos of thousands of criminals.

The Encyclopedia documents a brutal world where hardened criminals, debased by Tsarist labor camps and Stalin's gulag, lived like animals. They killed and maimed each other impassively. Walking around naked, they copulated, masturbated and excreted in plain view with no shame or regard for others. As one horrified observer wrote, "only their bodies were alive."

You might not expect art to flower under these conditions. Yet, art had more of an impact on human life in the prison camp than it does in most museums. Prisoners decorated themselves with symbols and images illustrating their crimes, their personal histories, their politics and their sexual practices. These "symbolic portraits" determined the prisoner's identity, his social status, even whether he lived or died.

The Encyclopedia recounts horrific games of chance in which the loser might be required to sacrifice fingers or a limb. In one game,

instead of an arm or a leg, the winner demanded a terrible humiliation as penalty: he commanded the barrack artist to tattoo an enormous penis on the man's face, pointing at his mouth. Minutes later, the man pressed a hot poker against his face, obliterating his tattoo.
The convict preferred to destroy his face rather than live with the artwork.

Art critics often debate the importance of representational art, but prisoners in the gulag view this question from a more urgent perspective: some prisoners tattooed portraits of Lenin or Stalin on their chests as protection against execution because they believed no firing squad would dare shoot at a picture of Lenin or Stalin. The accuracy of the picture literally became a matter of life and death; if the guard was unable to recognize Lenin or Stalin, you were more likely to die. There were not many fans of abstract art in the gulag.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn witnessed this body art and wrote in The Gulag Archipelago : "They surrendered their bronze skin to tattooing and in this way gradually satisfied their artistic, their erotic, and even their moral needs."

The Encyclopedia concludes:
The [prisoner] lives through his tattoos, he is mentally immersed in this reality, that is, he dissolves into the symbolic world of his own body. Like the Herman Hesse character who gets into the last carriage of a train and rides away-- a train that he himself drew on the wall of his prison cell.
There are lots of different ways to evaluate art, but if you want to see art that has a real impact on human life, you're more likely to find it among desperate men in the gulag than in the polite salons of Paris and Manhattan.