When the Ink Dries: Tattoos in the Russian Mafia

Scott Macaulay talks with Alix Lambert whose film Mark of Cain on Russian prison tattoos inspired Eastern Promises.

The most startling image in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises occurs about half way through the movie when Viggo Mortensen takes off his clothes. And no, the warrior Aragon hasn't done a Raging Bull and gone to seed for his role as an unassuming Russian chauffeur to a London crime boss. Mortensen's physique is intact -- it's what's on top of it that shocks. Covering his torso is a rippling tapestry of iconographic tattoos, a collage of faces, symbols, dates and other information that totals, as Cronenberg explains, the character's "passport" through the Russian penal system.

The scene takes place in the backroom of a London restaurant. Ready to advance up the ladder of the local Russian mob organization, Mortensen's character, Nikolai, demonstrates his fealty to thug life by showing his bosses the body art that can only be earned by having lived the life of a hardcore criminal.

But is the scene just another example of unbridled creativity from a director, who, after all, once imagined a future in which a VHS player might be located in one's abdomen?

No, says filmmaker Alix Lambert, whose documentary Mark of Cain is a definitive look into the symbolism of Russian prison tattoo art. "You would learn everything about a [Russian prisoner]" by scrutinizing their tattoos, she says. "What prisons they sat in, what crimes they committed, what position they held in prison, and what their personal proclivities were. Under the thieves' code, if you are a high-ranking prisoner, you want those tattoos–they would afford you a higher status."

While tattoos are common in gang and criminal life across the world, the symbolism of Russian criminal tattoos is particularly highly developed, says Lambert. "We have prison tattoos here, gang tattoos, but there are 40 tattoos, tops," she notes. "Russian prisons have entire dictionaries of tattoos–it's an incredibly detailed, rapidly evolving language."

Prior to the filming of Eastern Promises, Mortensen discovered Lambert's doc, a short version of which had screened on ABC's Nightline, and showed it to Cronenberg, who was inspired to elevate the importance of the tattoo storyline in the script. "The scene where Nikolai is inducted into the mob became a scene of reading and commenting on tattoos and their meanings," Cronenberg remarks.

Eastern Promises key makeup artist Stephan Depuis was charged with overseeing the authenticity of the film's foray into tattoo culture. He hired the London-based effects makeup specialist David Stoneman, who was given two weeks to produce the temporary tattoos that would be applied to Mortensen. Stoneman, with his partner Helen Morley, runs the specialty firm maekup, which has supplied makeup materials to such films as Spiderman 3, The Departed, and the last three Harry Potter films. The team has also created ephemeral body art that has been worn on screen by the likes of Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood and The Rock.

Using as reference material Danzig Baldaev's Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia, Stoneman drew the designs by hand and then digitally scanned them into the Photoshop software program to create four separate color layers for the silkscreen printing process. "This was very time consuming," Stoneman says, "and meant working long days and quite a few all-nighters."

"The tattoos are basically a sandwich of an ultra-fine top or carrier coat, that holds all the pigment in place; a design layer made up of skin-safe four-color process colors; and then the adhesive layer," Stoneman continues. "This is all attached to a very absorbent layer called 'transfer release paper.' When ready to use the tattoos are trimmed around the edges and the design is placed paper side up onto the skin. The back of the paper is wetted for ten seconds, and the whole design is transferred onto the skin. A wet sponge is then pressed directly onto the tattoo to force the design onto the skin. Once dry this gives the tattoo much more realism; it gives the appearance that the tattoo is in the skin and not sitting on the surface."

Stoneman's work is convincing both on screen and within the film's storyline–the authenticity of Nikolai's body art succeeds in moving the chauffeur up the criminal ranks. But, as Lambert details in Mark of Cain, in the real world the culture of Russian prison tattoos is rapidly fading. Her film, which uses its study of body art to delve into a whole range of cultural, behavioral and public policy issues, evokes a fin de siecle era of Eastern bloc criminality, a time in which crime, criminals and the art of tattooing are not what they used to be.

Largely shot in Russian prisons in the towns of Perm and Samara, Mark of Cain begins by depicting the Russian prison system as a Theater of the Absurd in which the social codes of everyday society are violently exaggerated. "Downcast," or submissive, prisoners are forcibly tattooed with the word "slave." High-ranking prisoners, meanwhile, are guaranteed a good night's sleep in the monstrously overcrowded cells by the words "don't wake me up" they are privileged to have tattooed on their eyelids.

As the film progresses, the meanings Lambert extracts from the tattoos, which are drawn by prisoners on each other with homemade ink guns pumping a mixture of soot and urine, begin to change. For prisoners the tattoos are powerful statements of identity, but one Russian critic of the penal system claims they are actually a deliberate method of social control. They have the effect, he argues, of spreading a drug-resistant form of TB engineered to suppress the prison population.

By the film's end, the tattoos' original, complex iconography is, like many things in the new, post-Soviet era, in danger of extinction. A new generation of criminal doesn't recognize–or respect–the potent history behind these inked images. "There's a division between the older prisoners and the younger 'new money' ones," Lambert says. "[A prisoner] used to say, 'I want this tattoo,' but it was something he had earned." She discusses a younger prisoner who asked for a tattoo of a heart pierced by a knife: "He didn't realize that it meant that he was a hired killer, so he wound up burning it off. The alternative would have meant actually becoming a hired killer, and that's too demanding. And a lot of new criminals aren't even getting tattoos–they might want to go to university after prison."

Lambert, who, most recently, was a producer and writer for the HBO series John from Cincinnati, achieved her extraordinary access to the Russian prison system through a combination of feet-on-ground perspicacity and old-fashioned charm. "I traveled to Russia and hired a Russian crew, but in Moscow, we got the runaround," she says. "But when you get to places like Perm, the prisons are family-run businesses, and the people who run them are profoundly bored. They'd always initially tell us 'no," but if you'd hang out, have dinner, and drink vodka, the answer could change…"

Lambert also has a couple of tattoos, and she said those earned her some cred with both wardens and prisoners–as did her Brooklyn heritage. "At the White Swan [prison], the officials got really excited that I lived in Brooklyn," she says. "They made me show them my driver's license and said that Brooklyn was a big place for Russian organized crime!"

Mark of Cain is currently available directly through Lambert's own site, Pink Ghetto Productions.