Mark of Cain: The Language of Russian Criminal Tattoos
What encrypted visual communication has to do with the Russian justice system.
By Maria Popova
The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia is among Brain Pickings‘s most popular books of all time. Its curious subject — the poetic, fading art form and language of Russian criminal tattoos — is also the subject of filmmaker Alix Lambert’s 2001 documentary, The Mark of Cain, which is now available online under a Creative Commons license.
Lambert traveled on a shoestring budget to document the complex social hierarchy of Russia’s prison system, where inmates use highly symbolic tattoo art as a mark of rank. Since its earliest documented cases in the 1920s, this practice has remained largely a taboo and is actually illegal in Russian prisons, yet some estimates suggest that in the last generation alone, more than 30 million of Russia’s inmates have been inked. The unique visual language of the tattoos encrypts everything you need to know about an inmate without ever asking, from the number of convictions an inmate has to his rank in the crime world.
The Mark of Cain explores this fascinating subculture and its duality — its role in prison survival on the one hand and, on the other, the permanent mark it leaves on inmates as they try to reintegrate into society — though a layered look at everything from the actual creation of tattoo ink to the devastating conditions of the prisons to the intimate first-hand stories of prisoners revealed in hard-earned interviews.
The film is also available on DVD and served as source material for David Cronenberg’s excellent Oscar-nominated 2007 film Eastern Promises about the Russian mob in London, starring Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen.
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Published April 27, 2011