Russia is widely known for its culture of criminal tattoos and Arkady Bronnikov is the countries leading expert on them.
89 year-old Arkady Bronnikov is a retired paratrooper and is considered the leading expert on Russia's criminal tattoos. Tattoos in Russia were, and still are, considered to be a large part of criminal and prison society. Criminals document their lives on their bodies and find a place in the underworld based on their body art. A dark and intriguing subject Russian criminal tattoos offer an insight into a mysterious and seedy world.
Arkady Bronnikov wrote and published 25 annuals on Russian criminals and collected over 20,000 images of their tattoos! Since medieval times criminals have been marked, centuries ago it was with a brand as punishment but over the last century they have done it themselves with ink and tattoos. Tattoos give criminals status and respect and Bronnikov understands them better than even those that wear them.
'The difference between Russian and Soviet tattoos from those in the West one is that the Western ones have no criminal tradition. The more tattoos the criminal has the higher his authority is. Tattoos can tell important things about a person, for example, how many times he was jailed...in jails they check everything better than in police, where you were jailed, who was with you, this man will be seriously punished, beaten - or buggered.'
Bronnikov began documenting and collecting images of criminal tattoos as a way to help fight crime and understand the motivations behind it. Over the years he has been consulted on dozens of investigations and cases, and today is regarded as the leading expert on underworld tattoos in Russia.
'Why did I decide to collect tattoos? Knowing the secret symbols and criminal ways of communication gives you a chance to fight them. When you see a tattoo, you can learn a lot about its owner. Only Russian prisoners value tattoos so highly, treat it like signs of honours, like awards. They are proud of their criminal past.
Knowing the meanings behind criminal tattoos can also help civilians recognize dangerous people such as killers or rapists. Bronnikov also learned that the placement of a tattoo is as important as what the tattoo is; 'When reading a tattoo, it is very important where exactly at the body it is located.' For each body part there is different significance and different images mean different things depending on location.
Some of the most common criminal tattoos are skulls, knives and wild animals; 'Crosses often depict the thief's level of authority. Thiefs are the ones ruling in jails, not murderers. Tattoos with knives mean those jailed for hooliganism. Tattoos with beasts - lions, wolves, tigers - mean those jailed for violent robberies. Spiders and syringes indicate drug users. The church is another frequent symbol, the number of domes means the number of jail terms.
The expertise and knowledge of Bronnikov has also drawn international attention with the rise of wider Russian criminal activity. Only recently Bronnikov was visited by criminal experts from Interpol to consult him on his knowledge of criminal tattoos and the prison world of Russia.
Interestingly Bronnikov never photographed or documented a tattoo without the permission of the wearer and finding out what it meant to them. It is also worth noting that among the prison and criminal world the showing of tattoos is usually forbidden so Bronnikov documented things no others could have!
Of course after collecting 20,000 tattoo images and being a leading expert on criminal tattoos Bronnikov has a few of his own views on tattoos; 'My personal attitude to tattoos is strictly negative. It is bad for one's health, it hurts the skin, and in unhygienic conditions, where tattoos are normally made, can lead to serious diseases like syphilis or HIV.
Even though he's not the biggest fan of ink himself the life work of Arkady Bronnikov has to be admired and appreciated. The work and effort he put into understanding the tattoos of Russian criminals is an incredible achievement and one that has certainly aided the knowledge of tattooing across the world.