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Analysis & Opinion
02.04.12 Forever Inked
By Josephine Baldassi

Archeologists have revealed that Russia’s native Siberian and Pazyryk Scythian cultures had ornamented themselves with tattoos and piercings. As Russia’s culture developed throughout the ages, so did body art, which has drastically changed since the days of the Scythians. Despite its historical roots and cultural significance this tradition is often overlooked, but not by those who continue to be forever inked.

This year is a jubilee year for tattoo enthusiasts in Russia. Boasting ten years of success, the Tattoo Festival it is the longest running convention of its kind in the country’s history. Held from June 15 to 17 in St. Petersburg, the event will feature an elaborate program with various live performances, including tattooing, fire-shows, art installations, and daily rock and hip-hop shows.

The festival is an opportunity to exhibit the “fine” art of tattooing in the heart of St. Petersburg, Russia’s historical art and culture center: this year’s event will take place across from the Hermitage Museum. The location is a big leap forward from the movement’s humble beginnings on the suburban periphery, and stands for a true intersection of Imperial, Soviet and Contemporary Russia.

Ten years on the event has gained positive press coverage both locally and abroad. Even the “Frommer’s” travel guide makes note of it. Over the years the festival has drawn artists from across the former Soviet Union, but this year the lineup includes artists from Germany, the United States and Italy. The festival has also made a critical transition from a private into a public space: in an effort to leave the old taboos behind, festival organizers encourage the general public to attend, to “evaluate true masterpieces” and to “observe the process and the results of creative people.”

Russian tattoos’ seeming next of kin are Russian criminal tattoos, which have managed to take the forefront of body art and the related Russian subculture in the West, not least thanks to Hollywood. But there are also groups that promote critical studies of the subject, such as Fuel Publishers – a UK-based publishing house best known for its “Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia, Volumes I-III.” “Russia has been isolated, and this has allowed everything from politics to art to take a different course, to develop in a different way,” said Damon Murray, the co-founder of Fuel Publishers. “Russian criminal tattoos are a microcosm of this precept.”

The difference between Russian criminal tattoos and regular tattoos is significant. Russian criminal tattoo expert and essayist Alexei Plucer-Sarno has noted that tattoos define the criminal as a “code of law,” whereas for the average Russian a tattoo remains a personal choice. The body of a thief is, according to Plucer-Sarno, a “public” object, while free Russians modify their bodies on their own, free will. In terms of acceptance within their respective communities, Russian and Russian criminal tattoos again find themselves at odds. Plucer-Sarno said that for criminals, tattoos are not a lifestyle choice but an essential and required form of communication that is widely accepted and practiced. For the rest of the Russian population, ornamenting the body with tattoos and other modifications is a highly stigmatized activity.

Unlike Russia’s, the Western tattoo subculture has been greatly influenced and diluted by celebrity endorsements. “[The tattoo] doesn’t have to ‘mean’ something at the time [of application],” said tattoo cultural expert Colin Graham. Murray agreed: “Tattoos have become fashion accessories, which means their sub/cultural impact will equal that of fashion: they communicate more about taste than message, and the significance of the meaning is often secondary or not considered at all.”
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