Tattoos are used among criminals to show gang membership and record the wearer’s personal history—such as his or her skills, specialties, accomplishments and convictions. They are also used as a means of personal expression. Certain designs have developed recognized coded meanings. The code systems can be quite complex and because of the nature of what they encode.
This archive documents Russian criminals’ tattoos and their coded meanings. Included in the collection are more than three thousand tattoo drawings made by Danzig Baldaev during his time as a prison guard between 1948 and 1986. Tattoos were his gateway into a secret world in which he acted as ethnographer, recording the rituals of a closed society. The icons and tribal languages he documented are artful, distasteful, sexually explicit and provocative, reflecting as they do the lives and traditions of convicts.