In Alix Lambert’s The Mark of Cain the director visits grim Russian prisons in Perm and elsewhere and examines the elaborate tattoos worn by men and women serving time there. Tattooing is forbidden but common. The ink is prepared by burning the sole of a shoe, collecting the soot, and mixing it with urine. The ingenious mechanical tools are made with windup motors and ballpoint pens with steel guitar string for the needle.
There is a suggestion that the tattoos convey status in a strict criminal hierarchy (the “Thief-in-the-law”) and must be earned, but the convicts who address this are not reliable narrators – it seems to be more about fashion than rank. An elderly former convict named Viktor Tyryakin, who did time for robbery and whose chest is decorated with portraits of Lenin, Karl Marx, and Fredrich Engels, expresses nostalgia for the golden era of Russian prison tattoos:
“Back then, when I was in prison, it was in style.
“It used to be, I could tell you who was in from 1928. I could tell you right away, 1927, 1928. How? Back then, they tattooed eagles on everything. After that they tattooed Stalin and Lenin either on the back or on the heart. Then there were those monasteries. Now, what is it? They have things like Devils frying a priest on a bonfire. It’s all rubbish.”
Another elderly inmate explains the logic behind putting a portrait of Stalin on one’s chest:
“Why did they tattoo Stalin and Lenin? Because if they sentenced you to death, if you had that tattoo, then they wouldn’t shoot you. Because it was a tattoo of the Leader.”
This comes across as pure jailbird mythology. The ruthless sort who killed the Romanovs would not spare a bullet for a hoodlum because he had a soot-and-urine portrait of Lenin on his chest.