Russian Knuckles

Identity is a subject that is very close to me as an individual and as a photographer (which ends up the same in reality).


Although I already knew 'A' to see, it was only recently when I properly spoke with him. I couldn't help notice or remark on his tattoos. Despite his others, it was those on his knuckles that was of particular interest to me. They were done relatively recently and were obviously significant to A .

Tattoos are deeply personal. They range from regretful through to inspirational. [I have none but would probably visit Adrian & Co. in  Reinkarnated if I could ever decide on a design and/or body part]. 

I had recently shared Adam Hilton's work and so prison tattoos were still current in mymind. Russian prison tattoos are similar to military decoration. They are often only awarded after a crime has been committed. A tattoo of a dagger through a neck for example, depicts a convict who has murdered someone while in prison and is now a hitman for hire. 

When a new prisoner enters a cell he is  asked 'Do you stand by your tattoos?' If there is even a slight hesitation, word is spread that a 'fake criminal' is wearing a 'false tattoo'.

That said, tattoos can also be used to stigmatise and punish those in criminal society including those who have failed to pay debts, broken the criminal code or have been convicted of child rape. Frequently, sexually explicit images are forcibly applied on a snitch’s forehead in order to  humiliate him and warn others of what the individual is capable. Tattoos serve as a rule of law in a society that transcends conventional law. They can be a  deciding factor between life or death. 

It is not known when tattooing initially became common practice in both Russian prisons and Stalinist Gulags. Soviet researchers first discovered this underground activity in the 1920s with photographs of prisoners from that period suggesting that an already elaborate and highly developed subculture was more than mere decoration. 

'A' obviously chose his tattoos on personal basis and never spent time in a Russian jail cell! As can be seen, the graphics also include that of A Clockwork Orange, which reflects a dystopia, but not a criminal life in a Russian jail. He chose his tattoos on his own terms unlike those upon whom they are forced. 

Tattoos on knuckles are a specific kind of tattoo, which utilises two groups of four-letter words (or one eight-letter word) and of course, is not necessarily prison related.

The tattoos on the knuckles of Robert Mitchum's Reverend Harry Powell's, 'LOVE' and 'HATE' became one of the most iconic images in film history.

Without time to go through each of the symbols on A's knuckles, I'll save that for another post!