Where: St. Petersbug, RUssia

May 19, 2001: For more than 50 years Danzig Baldayev had been studying a unique mode of communication amongst the Russian prisoners. When he was a prison guard he discovered that the tattoo on each prisoner’s body had a message for the other inmates.

A burning cross meant the prisoner wanted revenge, a pirate with a knife between his teeth showed that the person was a sadist or one who likes to hurt others and a tattoo of the Soviet founder, Vladimir Lenin, was like a charm against execution. A tattoo of ex-Soviet President Boris Yeltsin, with a glass of vodka, meant the guy was a drunk!

Tattoos that Talk
Tattoos that Talk [Illustration by Shinod AP]

The Asian Age newspaper has reported that 76-year-old Baldayev’s long-time hobby has just been released in the form of a book, Prisoners’ Tattoos. The book was released at St Petersburg’s old Kresty jail.

Baldayev continued to document prisoners’ tattoos even after he became a police detective. Ironically, his efforts were met with resistance from prison staff, while the police detectives encouraged it, the newspaper reports him as saying. However, during the Communist rule Baldayev had to pursue his hobby in secret. He even went to the extent of paying prisoners with tobacco for letting him copy their tattoos.

The newspapers reports Baldayev as saying that the Russian prisoners’ tattoos had more varied styles than tattoos on prisoners in other countries. Several times, the Russian prison tattoos involved political themes, he said. Also, they don’t just tell about the crime committed by the prisoner, but also tell about his place in the underworld hierarchy. Apart from these, the prisoner’s desires and personality too were indicated, the author said.

Baldayev got interested and began copying these tattoos in 1948 when he first came to Kresty. Thereafter, he left no stone unturned in finding newer and newer tattoos. He collected tattoos from other parts of the country and he spied ex-prisoners at the Russian bath houses. In his obsession with this unique language, Baldayev even visited morgues to find unusual tattoos.