The Saatchi Gallery offers an unmissable opportunity to sample some of tattoo art’s grisly heritage.
Article – Pippa Blenkinsop
Photography – Rich Luxton/Saatchi Gallery
Britain, Germany, China, India, the Middle East – all have provided a focus for Charles Saatchi’s geographical exhibitions – now it’s Russia’s turn. The Stalin quote of 1935 ‘Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union’ is the ironic title given to the group of artworks cherry picked by Saatchi for this regional survey. The irony of the title sets the theme for the exhibition which, through the display of a variety of media from installation to photography, paints a dismal picture of Post-Soviet Russia. True to his traditional formula many of Saatchi’s choices are from emerging artists whose works are politically charged, to the point where they would not be able to be exhibited in their own country.
Many pieces embody attitudes of bitterness, anger and frustration and direct insult at the current regime including Irina Korina’s installation – a makeshift classical column in which a dented scrap metal shaft is crowned with plastic carrier bags stuffed with old clothes. The piece named ‘Capital’ is a visual pun which plays on the dual meaning of its title, to literally compare Russian Capitalism to trash. Similarly, in Valery Koshlyakov’s work idealism is mocked through the casual painting of grand utopian structures on salvaged cardboard canvases whilst Gosha Ostretsov’s vengeful installation suggests that Russian politics is crippled with concealment and crime. ‘Criminal Government’ shows suited and masked officials inside graffitied prison cells covered in blood and missing various limbs.
Yet it is the photography which, in the context of this exhibition, is the most politically explicit, in particular, Boris Mikhailov’s portrayal of poverty in his graphic portraits of Soviet survivors. Just as uneasy are Vikenti Nilin’s series of photographs ‘Neighbours’ in which people are precariously perched on the window ledges and balconies of communist tower blocks. You instantly assume they are contemplating suicide until further inspection when you notice their matching clothes and content expressions which gives way to dark humour.
It is photography too which opens the exhibition with the first room dedicated to Sergei Vasiliev’s monochrome images of tattooed convicts photographed during his time as a warden in prisons and reform settlements across Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, Perm and St Petersburg. Taken between 1989 and 1993, the photographs were intended to supplement the work of Danzig Baldaev – another prison warden who made it his goal to create a drawn record of all the tattoos and their meanings. Since being bought by the publishing company FUEL both the drawings and photographs have been compiled into a series of pocket-sized ‘Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedias’. Instead, here, in line with the irony of the exhibition’s title, the photographs of convicts once excluded from society have been amplified to attract public attention – the secret imagery of an underworld dubbed ‘the language of thieves’ is now broadcast to a mass audience.
Where our culture is one in which tattoos are usually intended to provide the bearer with aesthetic pleasure and a mark of individuality, here body art is charged with hidden meaning. Rather than an > artist’s canvas the flesh was used as a vehicle for multifunctional communication. Inked with a mixture of representational, iconographical and textual images an inmate’s body formed his own biography and visual criminal record which signalled to others both his social rank and personal characteristics. A catalogue of symbols tattooed across the knuckles documented convicts’ past crimes whilst the number of barbs on a wire was equivalent to the number of years imprisoned. Epaulettes and skulls denoted a high ranking criminal – a genie a drug addict, a cat a thief etc and images of roaring tigers were indications of anger. These meanings were often dictated by or transformed by the location of the image. Where a pair of eyes etched onto the chest means ‘I can see everything, I am watching’, when pictured on the lower stomach it is a symbol of homosexuality (the genitals complete the face). Once more, if an inmate was found to have false tattoos they would be forcibly scraped off. Sometimes the body part was even cut off which may explain why the man in the picture below is missing a finger – in extreme cases, the fraudster was raped or killed.
As tattooing in prison was illegal simply having one was an act of defiance but stripped of free speech these tattoos were also silent protests against the authorities. The script on the arm of the convict pictured below to the right reads ‘Communists, suck my dick for my ruined youth’ whilst the thieves’ stars on the knees of the prisoner in Print No. 15 means ‘I will not kneel before the authorities.’ Other insults included pornographic tattoos and anti-soviet symbols such as the swastika, hammer and sickle and portraits of Lenin and Stalin characterised as devils. Yet in the complex world of Russian tattoos, the political figures were sometimes also desperate attempts to protect against firing squads as they were prohibited from shooting at images of their leaders. Tattoos of Christ, the Madonna and scarab beetles were also believed to bring luck to the wearer.
Saatchi clearly has an interest in tattooing as a concept as it has featured in the work of several artists who have exhibited at his gallery in the past. However, it is a concept that’s always been mediated through other art forms – painting, sculpture and illustration. And, whilst showcasing real examples of human tattooing may be breaking new ground for Saatchi, here it still remains bound to another art form. This is tattoo art seen through the lens of a camera, filtered through the mind of a photographer and unfortunately for us, it isn’t an opportunity to marvel at tattoo craftsmanship. As a patron of contemporary art, Saatchi’s agenda differs to ours. For him these photographs are not valued for their etching skill (executed using a device made from a razor with melted boot sole and blood diluted with urine for ink meant most were of little technical merit anyway) but for their socio-political significance, which is informed as much by their subject matter as their mood and choreography.
Indeed as powerful as this secret language is, it is made yet more powerful by the physical body language of its bearer. Ranging from the intimidating, defiant and proud to the passive reflective and surprising tenderness of embracing males, the body language contributes heavily to our experience of the artwork. Sitting with his legs crossed in a comfy chair and resting his arm on a cello against a backdrop of what appears domestic wallpaper, the offender in the opening picture looks tame and civilised. However, in the knowledge that the dagger tattooed through the neck symbolises that the wearer has committed murder in prison, and is available to hire for killings, we instantly feel uncomfortable in his presence. Open until June 9th this exhibition may not raise the profile of our profession as an art but is worth a visit as it allows us to glimpse into another dimension of the tattoo world.