Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files

Today, tattoos are two a penny: it’s a rare moment when a bearded young fellow on a bike, or a bespectacled, vintage-frock-sporting young lady goes past who doesn’t bear indelible inking.

Police Files
Police Files

However, this is a fairly recent development. In the past, such inkings were the preserve of all but the most rebellious. Hells Angels, perhaps, or Russian prisoners – as a fascinating new London photography exhibition at Grimaldi Gavin gallery shows. The show is curated by FUEL with photographs from the book Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files.

Police Files
Police Files

Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files, an exhibition opening later this month in central London, presents a series of photographs collected by USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs criminalistics expert Arkady Bronnikov between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s.

Police Files
Police Files

The images were drawn together over three decades during Bronnikov’s visits of prisons in the Ural and Siberia regions, where he interviewed inmates and took photographs of their often highly elaborate tattoos.

Police Files
Police Files

He collected a total of 918 images, which were used by police with the aim of garnering insights into the meanings and messages hidden in the body art. As such, the images, as the gallery says, are “Unimpeded by artistry…[presenting] a guileless representation of criminal society.”

Police Files
Police Files

Unlike traditional portraiture, the faces and any narratives they may convey are hidden: instead we see just tattoos, which contain their own, often obfuscated stories.

Police Files
Police Files

Grimaldi Gavin gallery says: The photographs unintentionally betray their human side disclosing evidence of prisoners¹ character: aggressiveness, vulnerability, melancholy, and conceit.

“Their bodies display an unofficial history, told not just through tattoos, but also in scars and missing digits. Closer inspection only confirms our inability to comprehend the unimaginable lives of this previously unacknowledged caste.”

FUEL present: Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files runs from 17 October – 14 November at Grimaldi Gavin gallery, 27 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4DW

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