Sergei Vasiliev was born in 1936 in the Chuvash region of Russia. He was a staff photographer for the newspaper Vecherny Chelyabinsk for over thirty years. He has received many honours including International Master of Press Photography from the International Organization of Photo Journalists (Prague, 1985), Honoured Worker of Arts of Russia and the Golden Eye Prize. His work has been exhibited internationally and is held in numerous museum collections.
Sergei Vasiliev’s Russian Criminal Tattoo pictures were taken between 1989 and 1993. The photographs of Soviet prisoners document the secret code language of criminals in the USSR, evidence of a gritty spirit of picaresque resistance within a violently repressive culture.
This volume of drawings and photographs completes the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia trilogy. Danzig Baldaev’s unparallelled ethnographic achievement, documenting more than 3,000 tattoo drawings, was made during a lifetime working as a prison guard. His recording of this esoteric world was reported to the KGB, who unexpectedly supported him, realizing the importance of being able to establish facts about convicts by reading the images on their bodies. The motifs depicted represent the uncensored lives of the criminal classes, ranging from violence and pornography to politics and alcohol. A medieval knight is surrounded by the severed heads of his enemies, a naked woman simultaneously services a man and two dwarfs, a crying President Gorbachev grips a human bone between sabre-like fangs, a group of angels drink vodka with God on a cloud–the meanings of these arresting images are explained to the uninitiated eye. Sergei Vasiliev’s graphic photographs show the grim reality of the Russian prison system and some of the alarming characters that inhabit it, while the illustrated criminals of Russia tell the tale of their closed society. This volume, the last in the trilogy, includes an introduction by historian Alexander Sidorov exploring the origins of the Russian criminal tattoo and their various meanings today.