The language of cards was applied to inmates according to their status within the zone. The suit of clubs or spades, the main symbol of a ‘legitimate thief’, is a recurring motif in their tattoos. The red suits ‘lower’ the bearer’s status within the zone when applied as tattoos. The symbol of hearts transforms the bearer into an erotic object, denoting that he plays the role of a ‘woman’. The symbol of diamonds is forcibly applied to informers and can lead to sexual violence.
Methods for the construction and marking of cards varied, but every deck was tailored to give a playing advantage to its owner. Symbols were made deliberately difficult to decipher, markings were stenciled using textured paint, enabling them to be read by touch, the cards themselves were sharpened to allow manipulation within the deck. [These methods are described in detail in Russian Criminal Tattoos and Playing Cards]. Once the pack was completed the search for a ‘goose’ – an inexperienced beginner who will agree to play – could begin.
The status of kartyozhnik (card-sharp) was difficult to obtain, progress depended greatly on the teacher. Many beginners quit after a month, becoming fuflizhnik (‘rubbishers’, unable to settle their debts), or ‘skipping out’ (lowering their status by joining the ranks of the ‘cocks’ and ‘goats’), or were ‘done away’ (made into passive sodomites). Those who persisted attained an exalted place within prison lore. The kartyozhnik’s ability to donate ‘clean’ money to the obshchak (the thieves’ community kitty) meant that the criminal authorities adapted their thieves code to assist him, in order that they continued to directly benefit from his card ‘playing’ skills.
These photographs of Russian prisoners tattoos were collected by Arkady Bronnikov from the mid-1960s to mid-1980s. A senior expert in criminalistics at the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs for over thirty years, part of his duties involved visiting correctional institutions of the Ural and Siberia regions.
It was here that he interviewed, gathered information and took photographs of convicts and their tattoos, building one of the most comprehensive archives of this phenomenon. In 2013 FUEL acquired this collection consisting of over 900 photographs. A selection of these photographs alongside official police papers authored by Bronnikov from the Soviet period were published by FUEL in September 2014 and in 2018.
The Bronnikov collection was made exclusively for police use, to further the understanding of the language of these tattoos and to act as an aid in the identification and apprehension of criminals in the field. The photographers only consideration was the recording of the body for practical purposes. Unimpeded by artistry, these vernacular photographs present a guileless representation of criminal society. The tiny fraction of prisoners documented here unintentionally betray their human side. Every image discloses evidence of an inmate's character: aggressive, vulnerable, melancholic, conceited. 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.
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. He is author of more than twenty books, including Russian Beauty (1996) and Zonen (1994). Sergei Vasiliev died in 2021.
His work has been exhibited internationally as part of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Exhibition. Thirteen large format Russian Criminal Tattoo prints were shown at the Saatchi Gallery in the exhibition Gaiety Is The Most Outstanding Feature Of The Soviet Union, 21 Nov 2012 – 9 June 2013.