|Written on the Body
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
7 October 2006
The face of a young Guatemalan gang-member
(a photograph in the Guardian, September 30), seen through a
chain-link fence, reminded me of something I had just been reading.
Down the side of the face, extending back into the scalp and
down at least to the throat, was a skeleton tattoo. On the man's
forehead was a horned skull. Nobody who saw the face could miss
the meaning: here was a desperado, a member of a gang.
The photograph was taken by Orlando Sierra
at the scary prison of Pavón, outside Guatemala City,
once a progressive penal institution, then, for 10 years until
it was raided last month, a criminal state within a state, run
by the druglords. During the raid, the accompanying article
by Rory Carroll told us, two of the rulers of this criminal
enterprise were shot by the authorities, summarily killed in
their beds, according to some survivors. The interior minister
said: "You can't believe a word, they're criminals."
That they were criminals their bodies would
no doubt have attested. It is part of the price you pay, on
joining such gangs, that your body is made to plead guilty.
Tattooing of this kind, according to the essay I had been reading,
resembles torture not only in being painful but also in being
a way of forcing the body to speak the truth. You expect that,
when it comes to a battle with the police, it will be a battle
to the death, because your tattoo marks you out as one-who-may-be-murdered.
The Japanese criminal tattoos, resembling an
undershirt in that they cover only the concealed parts of the
body, maintain a degree of secrecy, a sort of privacy. But the
man who, whether by choice, as part of an initiation rite, or
against his will, as part of a punishment, has the public parts
of his body tattooed, is in the process of bidding farewell
to his private life. In Russia, the tulip or rose entangled
in barbed wire means that the convict has spent his 16th or
18th birthday in "the zone" - the world of prisons
and labour camps. Such juveniles are subjected to ritual tortures
from the moment they are imprisoned, and their entire first
stretch is an act of initiation, from beginning to end.
The mystery as to why a criminal should wish
to have his face tattooed (thereby making life in the legitimate
world impossible) dissolves as soon as we appreciate that the
zone itself is the legitimate world, and the criminal himself
is the "legitimate thief". A candle in a tattoo means
"I am alive as long as my candle burns" and "I
shall not be happy in this sinful world, but in the next".
The zone is a kind of death: "I am already a corpse,"
say the tattoos, but "A thief is not afraid of death".
"I was born to die" and death dwells within me, so
"Expect no mercy from me" since "I shall come
for your life soon, bitch".
The book I was reading, from which these examples
are taken, is the recently published volume two of the Russian
Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia (volume one was brought
out in 2003 by the same publisher, Fuel). This uses drawings
made over the years by a prison warder called Danzig Baldaev
(1925-2005), who, during the course of work in reformatory settlements
all over the former Soviet Union, collected some 3,600 images.
There are also photographs, of the most dismal character. Once
again, there is an essay by Alexei Plutser-Sarno and, in this
latter volume, an introduction by Anne Applebaum.
The horned skull on the forehead of the Guatemalan
criminal is one of the "titular" status symbols in
the Russian repertoire: it is like an autograph worn on the
brow, a "signature under one's own life". It is a
type of totemic animal. One might have chosen a tiger, a lion,
a badger, a panther, a wolf, a werewolf, a devil ... Indeed,
the horned human skull has something of an association with
the werewolf, along with a list of ambiguous images such as
a head that is half a cat's and half a horned werewolf's, a
head that is half a cat's and half a man's, a skull with eagle's
wings and a devil with wolf's ears.
The thief perceives himself, in his "night
work", as a form of werewolf. Vladimir Dal's celebrated
Russian dictionary, compiled in the 19th century, tells us that
the word "werewolf" already denoted a former convict:
"Tramps and inveterate thieves call a man who has returned
from exile in Siberia a werewolf." And a man with a tattooed
face has greater freedom at work if he comes out at night, transforming
himself as werewolves do.
The thief imagines himself as belonging to
a world in which magic is reality, and in his world all the
bodies of his fellows are similarly decorated. A body without
tattoos is "naked", "weak", "dying",
"unauthoritative", "unmanly". But it is
by no means permitted to wear just any tattoo, or to make a
false claim about yourself (I am a murderer, I am a rapist)
through the medium of your skin. If his tattoos are not deserved,
the thief is told by his fellows: "You have two or three
hours, use sandpaper, anything you like, a knife or glass -
remove it or otherwise we'll beat you until you're half dead."
And the convict will either be terrified into doing so, or will
have his tattoos removed for him, and probably die in the process.
"It is as if there is nothing of value
inside the thief and the value of his body is on the surface."
Written on that surface is the thief's history and his identity,
and his "grins at authority" - that is to say, his
opposition to the official world. In the Soviet Russian context,
Lenin, Stalin, Andropov and Brezhnev were the criminal bosses
of a competing thieves' clan. The bodies of the thieves announced
that they were at war with this clan. And the tattoos, by their
unique nature, could not be confiscated. The body "could
be mutilated, subjected to violence, examination and mistreatment;
but, for as long as the convict was alive, his body possessed
the authority to argue with the camp administration". And,
superstitious as most criminals are, convicts believed that
the authorities would never shoot a body that bore the portrait
of Marx, Lenin, Stalin. They took these totemic images and used
them to express their fundamental opposition to the state.