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Things That Have Interested Me

Written on the Body

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published 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.

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