The Mark of Cain
April 23, 2011 2:46 PM   Subscribe

"The Mark of Cain" is a 73 minute documentary by Alix Lambert about Russian prison tattoos and the "Thieves-in-law" who often wear the tattoos.

Anyone interested in this subject would probably find these books worth a read: "Russian Criminal Tattoos Encyclopaedia" vols 1, 2 & 3 and, the book that accompanies the film, "Russian Prison Tattoos" also by Alix Lambert.
posted by selton (22 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
Damn I forgot to mention: there is one scene with a topless woman (she's topless to show her many tattoos). So maybe NSFW.
posted by selton at 2:50 PM on April 23, 2011


If you're deciding whether you want to invest an hour and 13 minutes in this thing, there's a scene where a guy who looks like an end boss from Streets of Rage talks about how he heard that some gypsies stole gold from his mother's grave, so he killed them and cut off their heads. I hope this helps you make a decision.
posted by theodolite at 2:51 PM on April 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


My wife and I found this book on the subject in the bookstore here of all places. Worth a look if you are interested in the subject.
posted by TedW at 2:56 PM on April 23, 2011


Argh! After looking at all the links in the FPP I see that my book was already mentioned. Anyway, still worth a look as an in-depth treatment of the subject.
posted by TedW at 2:58 PM on April 23, 2011


Netflix.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 3:01 PM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


My wife and I found this book on the subject in the bookstore here of all places.

I've seen it at the gift shop of the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago). I think that's some pretty clever distribution. One thing apparent in the encyclopedia that's not covered so much in the documentary (that I remember) is how many of the tattoos on these dudes incorporate cats -- not vicious, snarling, scary cats, just regular cute cats. The reason for this, so I'm told, is that cats can freely come and go as they wish, which the wardens allow because they catch mice, so they embody the freedom that the inmates lack. Which makes sense, but it's kind of disorienting to see so many widdle kitties on all these guys who look like they're carved from evil marble.
posted by theodolite at 3:05 PM on April 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


A beloved ex-boyfriend of mine was very much into these tattoos are an art form and social element. He loved this photo in particular.

He also owned all of those encyclopedias, and I'm quite surprised at how much they are selling for.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 3:16 PM on April 23, 2011


theodolite: About the stylised cat tattoos: my understanding was that the cats were an emblem of 'wily' or 'stealthy' thieves. Not exactly like the term 'cat burglars' but something akin to it, but cat tattoos were also used specifically to identify a 'thief-in-law' as opposed to a common criminal who was imprisoned for stealing something (stealthily or not).

But in the film at one point they cut from one prisoner to another each explaining the meaning of a certain tattoo (the church with multiple cupolas) and each prisoner gives a slightly different explanation. So maybe the tattoos didn't always have one global meaning anyway.

I'm very interested in Gulag literature/memoirs which led me to want to see a 'thief-in-law' and hear some of them speak. The thieves loathed and terrorised the political prisoners (who wrote the memoirs) so I was curious how close they would come to the embodiment of barbarism the politicals portrayed.
posted by selton at 3:32 PM on April 23, 2011


Saw these linked across metafilter recently;
Foreign Prisoner Support Service has a page with associated background, and suggestions of the importance/symbolism of tattoos, particularly in the context of Russian Prisons, and Russian Mafia.

Russian Mafia Tattoos (a blog that collects various pieces on this topic)

This page is a fascinating close-up look at several tattoos and goes into their meaning, purpose and explanation of details that are not obvious (click on body parts for closeups and more details).
posted by infinite intimation at 3:44 PM on April 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


There was a previous MeFi post on this if I remember correctly, but I don't mind, it was YEARS ago. The Russian prison tattoo tradition is so fascinating to me that I will read and look at anything with them. So thanks for this post! Plus I am always interested in anything about Siberija.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 4:16 PM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


A beloved ex-boyfriend of mine was very much into these tattoos are an art form and social element. He loved this photo in particular.

Having watched the video, I shudder to think what that particular holy-card imagery might actually mean in context.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:58 PM on April 23, 2011


there's a scene where a guy who looks like an end boss from Streets of Rage talks about how he heard that some gypsies stole gold from his mother's grave, so he killed them and cut off their heads.

Ummm, they're prison tattoos. We didn't think they got them to celebrate the birth of their pet bunny.
posted by jonmc at 5:07 PM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


This film was made in 2000 and Alix Lambert went onto work on Deadwood, which I think is an interesting transition.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:09 PM on April 23, 2011


This page is a fascinating close-up look at several tattoos and goes into their meaning, purpose and explanation of details that are not obvious (click on body parts for closeups and more details).

These stars (on the knees) are said in that link to have a point for each year in prison. Looks like eight years is a popular sentence. I'd like to see a seventeen year sentence. In the video he says that the stars on the knees show that you will never kneel. A star will never touch the floor.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:29 PM on April 23, 2011


jonmc: "Ummm, they're prison tattoos. We didn't think they got them to celebrate the birth of their pet bunny."

I want to see a documentary about that gang.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:43 PM on April 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


These stars (on the knees) are said in that link to have a point for each year in prison. Looks like eight years is a popular sentence. I'd like to see a seventeen year sentence. In the video he says that the stars on the knees show that you will never kneel. A star will never touch the floor.

Stars on the knees can never touch the ground. Stars on the shoulders are the sign of an "authority." A church may have towers for the number of years in the zone. Feet may say "wash" and "dry." Мир means "peace," but also stands for "Shooting Will Reform Me." A cat smoking a pipe is the sign of a legitimate thief, dating back from before the revolution.

The meaning of all of these symbols are arbitrary, and dependent on the context in which they were applied, and the contexts in which they are displayed. The meanings become imbricated upon the tattoos themselves- they are meant to be seen by those who understand, and to defy meaning for those who are not part of the world they reference. They change all the time.

The one thing I learned from the encyclopedia, judging by the variety of anti-Semitic, anti-soviet, anti-fascist, pro-Nazi, anti-Caucasian, anti-Islamic, Stalinist, anti-Stalinist, anti-Buddhist, and anti-government images displayed, was that the soviet universalist project was a complete and total failure.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:14 PM on April 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Here's a little behind the scenes featurette from "Eastern Promises" about the tattoos.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:00 PM on April 23, 2011


> My wife and I found this book on the subject in the bookstore here of all places.

The Menil Collection has a nice, if pricey book collection.

I've also seen that book in some hipsterish book store in Japantown, San Francisco of all places. If you don't like hipsters you can pretend that a group of them got some Russian thief-in-law tattoos out of that book, then when they went to Moscow on a package deal they showed them off in a bar and then had them summarily hacked off by a gangster.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:05 PM on April 23, 2011


As great as Mark of Cain is, Crime is Alix Lambert's masterpiece, thus far.
posted by dobbs at 10:06 PM on April 23, 2011


I absolutely love the style of Russian prison work, and can't wait until the day when it can comfortably be copied by people who haven't been in a gulag. Ive actually saved space on my chest and stomach for the time when I can happily get some Russian prison stuff going on there.

I have the first volume of the encyclopedia, and I've looked at the others, but they are just too costly.
posted by broadway bill at 11:39 PM on April 23, 2011


I've got all those books mentioned, and the Mark of Cain DVD. I love this stuff.

(Lambert's Crime, and Baldaev's Drawings from the Gulag, are also worth looking at.)
posted by box at 9:31 AM on April 24, 2011


Russian prison made knife technology is vastly superior to our own.
posted by Iron Rat at 1:11 PM on April 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


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