Good Ink

Cheryl in Brentwood reports:

Prisoner art fascinates me. It’s a creative means to ward off insanity or channel demons for those doing time. Ingenuity thrives, as the cons have to resort to easily obtainable everyday materials and rudimentary tools. Hyaena Gallery in Burbank, CA, a favorite haunt of mine, has a notable collection of prisoner/true crime art, which you can peruse here.

Perhaps the most well-known form of prison art is the tattoo. Prisoners and gang members have a long history of getting inked, traditionally updating to reflect multiple prison stints. Russian criminals take this premise a step further. Not only are the tattoos themselves representative of crimes and beliefs, the position on the body and where the tattoos are placed in relation to one another tells a life story. Danzig Baldaev, a Russian prison attendant, collected over three thousand examples during his career. His photographs, drawings, and texts are compiled into three encyclopedic volumes of Russian Criminal Tattoos.

Graphic, dark imagery predominates with sexually explicit and political themes. Every part of the body is considered a canvas, including eyelids and the occasional penis (ouch!). Women also receive their fair share of tattoos. Some tattooing is done forcibly while the recipient is under restraint. A diamond is commonly applied by force, denoting a stool pigeon. Bad enough to be labeled one, but it also strips the individual of all status and makes them a target for rape.

In recent history, tattoos have transcended the ubiquitous butterfly and tramp stamp (enough already!) to ornate sleeves and back pieces. Tattooists are true artists, and their influence has spread into fashion and now book covers, with Penguin commissioning tattoo artists and book illustrators to come up with new cover designs for six classics. Penguin, you rock!


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  1. Pingback: Deeply Desi(red) « Chatter, A Blog

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