“Satan and the Devil’s agent in Russia.” This illustration by Danzig Baldaev was copied from the chest of a criminal named “White” in 1991 who had recently completed a 32-year bid in prison.
During his time as a prison guard in Russia, and then later as the warden of the notorious Kresty Prison in Leningrad, Danzig Baldaev would become the curator and historian of tattoos worn by the convicts he watched over for nearly 40 years.
Baldaev’s illustrations, 3,000 or so in all, have been compiled into a popular series of books—the first of which was published in 2004 under the title Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volume I. Had it not been at the urging of his father—who was no friend of the infamous NKVD (the politically repressive Stalin-era “secret” police group, The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs)—the stories behind the tattoos might never have been publicly chronicled. According to Baldaev, after he showed his father photographs of prisoners held in solitary confinement he advised him to start “collecting” images of the prisoner’s tattoos, for if he did not, the stories behind them would “all go to the grave with them.” The tattoos themselves served multiple purposes such as distinguishing a captive’s alignment within the prison population, what kind of crime they had committed or perhaps their affiliation with a specific Russian gang.
In 2009 the duo behind publishing house FUEL, Damon Murray, and Stephen Sorell purchased 750 illustrations done by Baldaev from his widow, which were then compiled in editions of the Russian Criminal Tattoo volumes. Here’s an example of the grim stories that would have gone undocumented by way of one heavily tattooed prisoner (who you can see here), who was photographed by Baldaev collaborator and fellow prison warden Sergei Vasiliev during a visit to the Strict Regime Forest Camp Vachel Settlement in the Penza Oblast Region of Russia.
This prisoner’s tattoos display his anger and bitterness towards Communist power; the tattoos on the face signify that he never expects to go free. He works as a stoker. Text under the eyes reads “Full / of Love;” on the chin “Danger of Death;” around the neck “To each his own;” above each head of the double-headed snake “Wife’ and ‘Mother-in-law;” on the chest “It is not for you whores, to dig in my soul;” on his arm “Communists, suck my dick for my ruined youth.”
Below is a selection of Baldaev’s illustrations, most of which, as you might have already figured out, are absolutely NSFW.
Top text reads “The Scary Dicks of the Land of Fools.” The text printed on the penises reads “Everything for the People!”
Text reads “Stalin was born on the 9th day of the moon, his “bat” image is the symbol of Satan!” Both the date of birth and death of Stalin are also inscribed under each bat wing. The tattoo was on the stomach of an inmate spending his last days in the Kashinko Hospital in 1979.
A poster illustrated by Baldaev denoting various Russian prison tattoo symbolism. You can read more about it here.
Danzig surrounded by a group of Russian prison inmates.