Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive

Between 1948 and 1986, during his career as a prison guard, Danzig Baldaev made over 3,000 drawings of tattoos. They were his gateway into a secret world in which he acted as ethnographer, recording the rituals of a closed society. The icons and tribal languages he documented are artful, distasteful, sexually explicit and provocative, reflecting as they do the lives, status and traditions of the convicts that wore them. Baldaev made comprehensive notes about each tattoo, which he then carefully reproduced in his tiny St. Petersburg flat. The resulting exquisitely detailed ink drawings are accompanied with his handwritten notes and signature on the reverse, the paper is yellowed with age, and carries Baldaev’s stamp, giving the drawings a visceral temporality – almost like skin


Various cat tattoos. The cat is one of the oldest symbols of criminal world. They are the personification of the thieves’ fortune, prudence, patience, the speed of their actions, their ruthlessness and rage. At the same time they represent the expectations of their victims. The abbreviation KOT (tomcat), which is found in tattoos, is the language of thieves, it means: Korennoy Obitatel Tyurmy (Native prison inhabitant).

Top right: Text reads ‘NVOVDO’.

This is a rare acronym, understandable only to the initiated: NVOVDO – ‘Do not touch the thief, he will always make you surrender!’ 1950s.

Bottom left: The symbols on the hat worn by the cat signify the bearer of the tattoo is otritsaly – a thief who refuses to submit to, and is a malicious infringer of the prison rules.

Bottom right: Text reads 'All power to the godfathers!’.1980s.