Sergei Vasiliev: Russian Criminal Tattoos 1989-1993

Former law enforcer and later ‘Vecherny Chelyabinsk’ staff photographer Sergei Vasiliev had the privilege of access to some of the most notorious and hardened criminals in Russian prisons and reform settlements across Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, Perm and St Petersburg, from about 1989-1993. In these years he managed to document the unique visual code on the skin-canvas of these out-of-law men. It is important to note that these tattoos, in the closed circle of the Russian underworld of the early ’90s, were not fashionable embellishments to flaunt, but rather, they were personal histories marking the criminals’ route through the prison system, their ranks in the gangland hierarchy,  successes and failures, promotions, demotions, kills, transfer of work, and so on. Unlike the more commercially pop and fairly visible Japanese yakuza tattoos, the visual code captured by Vasiliev maps a rather curious irony – that these notorious gangsters were honest in not running away from their past, never putting a tattoo which they had not earned, and always living up to what they have done and they might do, and inking it on their skins as daily reminders of who they are. And because of who they were, they are now long dead and gone.

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