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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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