In Russia's criminal underworld, tattoos are the furthest thing from a Motley Crue or Rihanna fan collection of meaningless drawings and letters, for these guys, each tattoo has its own meaning, and for those who know how to, it can even be read like a curriculum vitae of it's gangster life, present or past.
This following series of super dark images have been taken by Sergei Vasiliev in the early 1990s after he gained access to some of Russia's toughest prisons at the peak of the gang wars that followed the break up of the Soviet Union.
Born in 1937 in Chelyabinsk, Russia, Sergei was a policeman before quitting the job to follow his true passion of photography. After graduating from the MVD Academy, Moscow, he became a staff photographer for the newspaper ‘Vecherny Chelyabinsk’, where he has worked for the past thirty years.
Yet working for this newspaper did not grant him access to these places, it was because of his law enforcing past that he managed to persuade guards back in 1991 to grant him access to prisons and reform settlements across Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, Perm and St Petersburg, and it was his charm that helped him persuade the inmates to remove their clothes and pose for his camera.
Different prisons also had different styles to show the gangster's route through the jail system that signified the wearers rank on the gangland hierarchy, detailing all of his achievements and failures, his promotions and demotions, his ‘secondments’ to jail and his ‘transfers’ to different types of ‘work’. Punishments for getting a tattoo that you have not earned could be severe, at best, it would be removed with sandpaper, glass, a brick or a razor. If he refused the offender would be raped or killed.
Also, the number of barbs on barbed wire denotes the years in a sentence, a broken manacle means the wearer has broken out of prison, a star on the knee means he refuses to kneel to police. Tattoos on the eyelids were particularly respected because they were made by inserting a metal spoon under the lid so the 'needle' did not penetrate the eye.
With Sergei's great work, FUEL published the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia in three volumes in 2003, 2006 and 2008 respectively. A few copies are still available for around 800 euro’s, if you are really lucky. But for those who aren’t, the Saatchi Gallery in London are curating some of the best and most impressive photographs from Sergei’s hand and exposed them in their gallery until may 2013