Tattoos, historically, have been on the bodies of sailors and prisoners. It’s only in relatively recent years that they’ve entered mainstream society and lost some of their negative social stigma. Arkady Bronnikov collected photographs of tattooed Russian prisoners between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s. The amount he obtained was massive – 918 images worth – thanks to his position in the government. As a senior expert in criminalistics at the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs for over 30 years, part of Bronnikov’s duties involved visiting correctional institutions of the Ural and Siberia regions. He interviewed, gathered information, and photographed convicts and their tattoos, which gradually helped him build this comprehensive archive.
The images were later acquired by FUEL, a London-based design group, in 2013. Some of the photographs and official police papers authored by Bronnikov from the Soviet period will be published by FUEL in two volumes, the first of which was just released. Now, they are part of a current exhibition titled FUEL present: Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files at Grimaldi Gavin in London until November 22 of this year.
When these photos were taken, Bronnikov wasn’t concerned with composition or style. They were meant to act as a record and served a purely practical purpose. The gallery explains, “Their bodies display an unofficial history, told not just through tattoos, but also in scars and missing digits. Closer inspection only confirms our inability to comprehend the unimaginable lives of this previously unacknowledged caste.”