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Tuesday, 22 May, 2001, 07:24 GMT 08:24 UK
Gulag tattoos decoded
The book has photos and drawings of tattoos
More than just a criminal subculture
A book of prison "body art" has been published in Russia, lifting the veil from a subject long concealed from public view.

Soviet and Russian leaders models for tattoos
Brezhnev - a popular subject
The author, who worked in Soviet labour camps for over 30 years, has created an encyclopedia of inmates' tattoos.

Dozens of publishers rejected the project.

Russia's NTV television station showed pictures of some of the tattoos, describing them as an esoteric language, whose secret symbols were until recently passed on by word of mouth.

The book - launched at a famous jail in St Petersburg - publicly breaks the code for the first time.

Criminal record

The author, Major Dantsig Baldmayev, says tattoos are a passport, an autobiography and a criminal record rolled into one.

The book shows history of body art in Russian prisons
Images of women: Less popular than politicians
Prisoners call the art form "medals on a tunic".

Crosses say how many times an inmate was sentenced.

They are also the symbol of revenge, or signs of a thief's expertise.

Portraits of Russian and Soviet leaders - including Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin - were more popular than naked women.

Talisman

It was thought that guards would not shoot at Lenin or Stalin.

Modern prisoners also use tattoos
Body art still thrives today
But these political, often anti-Soviet tattoos, were the most difficult for the author to record.

"Prisoners with such tattoos don't want to be photographed. They say: Boss, this would be used as evidence against me, but I don't mind if you draw it," Baldmayev said.

The television report said Russian prison body art was still developing.

Aids, the Afghan and Chechen wars, Russian national symbols - and the image of President Vladimir Putin - are all to be found reflected on the bodies of the prisoners of today.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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See also:

08 Apr 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Russia's icy nowhere
10 Dec 98 | 50th Anniversary Declaration of Human Rights
Russia's reputation still stained by human rights
06 Dec 99 | Northern Ireland
Body art threat to blood supplies
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