The Russian Issue is out and it only seemed right that we checked out the ‘Russian Criminal Tattoo Exhibition’ currently showing in London. Hosted by FUEL Design and Publishing, the creators of the lauded Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volumes I, II and III, the original artworks from this popular series are displayed for the first time. Showing 120 original ink drawings by Danzig Baldeav and 16 photographic prints by Sergei Vasiliev, this is wonderful documentary art at its most intriguing, focusing on human subjects and the stories behind their body art. Working as a prison attendant, Baldeav used tattoos as a portal into the mysterious ritualism of the Russian criminal underground and an ethnographic recording of the lives and traditions of the Russian convicts.

Sergei Vasiliev

© Sergei Vasiliev

© Sergei Vasiliev

Devil Sickle tattoo
Devil Sickle tattoo

Some of the images documented are tasteful and pleasant, others uncouth images of lust and violence; a powerful language of motifs and graphic complexity. Beyond the sheer artistry and volume of this collection, what stands out is the striking human tragedy of these poignant images. For all the awe and glamour these tattoos inspired in films like Eastern Promises (2007) and the recognition they gave to this closed facet of Russian society, you cannot ignore the inherent connection to the sad souls who wore them with inexorable pride and shame. A great documentary in a vast space which does them justice, this is a great exhibition to see on your weekend gander around Spitalfields and Brick Lane.

Russian Criminal Tattoo Exhibition
Russian Criminal Tattoo Exhibition

The exhibition runs until 29 November at 4 Wilkes Street, Spitalfields, London E1 6QF, Thursday to Sunday, 11am-6pm.