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1. Mikhail Kovanev, poet, artist and musician, was serving a sentence of fifteen years for murder. He claimed he was innocent of this charge. Every part of his body was covered with tattoos, many of his own design. The eyes on the stomach mean that he was a homosexual (the penis makes the ‘nose’ of the face). In the colony he became a drug addict and was subsequently killed.
2. These tattoos are in the ‘traditional’ style: a large central tattoo covering the chest and stomach area. The central motif is based on Raphael’s Madonna from the Sistine Chapel. This was a popular thieves’ ‘talisman’, reserved only for the highest ranking areas of the body.
3. Traditionally tattoos bearing images of Lenin and Stalin were usually tattooed onto the chest, it was a commonly held belief that Communist firing squads were not permitted to shoot at an image of their leaders. Text above Lenin reads ‘Wake up Ilyich (Lenin)’, above the tiger ‘They (criminals) are getting brazen’.
4. This convict’s tattoos were applied in the camps of the Urals where the tattoo artists produce work of exceptional quality. Because they were so held in such high regard, criminals often attempted to be transferred there in order to be tattooed. The dollar bill on the shoulder signifies the bearer’s commitment to a life of crime.
5. The text at the top of the thigh reads: ‘The earth is empty without you’. The ‘Made in CCCP’ tattoo on the right breast is the state quality mark of the USSR. This symbol was only applied to consumer goods of the ‘highest quality’. The rose tangled in barbed wire on the shoulder, denotes that the bearer celebrated their 16th or 18th birthday in the ‘zone’.
6. This convicts apparently random tattoos denote his rank within the criminal world. They embody a thief’s complete ‘service record’, his entire biography, detailing all of his achievements and failures, his promotions and demotions, his ‘secondments’ to jail and his ‘transfers’ to different types of ‘work’. A thief’s tattoos are his ‘passport’, ‘case file’, ‘awards record’, ‘diplomas’ and ‘epitaphs’. In this world a man with no tattoos has no social status whatsoever. Across the chest ‘Death is not vengeance / the dead don’t suffer’. On the arms ‘I live in sin / I die laughing’.
7. Orthodox religious tattoos are still among the most popular amoung criminals today. The crucifix and the Madonna and Child, depicted in the Orthodox tradition of icon painting, meant ‘my conscience is clean before my friends’, ‘I will not betray’. The Madonna signified ‘prison is my home’ – that the wearer was a multiple offender and recidivist. The number of domes on the tattoo of a church indicates the number of convictions. If a dome was adorned with a cross, it meant that the sentence had been served in full. As well as being a totem of a pickpocket, the scarab beetle is considered to bring luck to the wearer, these are usually tattooed on the hands, rarely (as in this image) they appear on other parts of the body.
8. The tattoos across the eyelids read ‘Do not / Wake me’. The genie on the forearm is a common symbol of drug addiction. If an addict is imprisoned for drug offences, he or she will have to go through withdrawal in the ‘zone’ (prison). Epaulette tattoos (on the shoulders) display the criminal’s rank in a system that mirrors that of the army (major, colonel, general etc).
9. The tattoo on the neck reads ‘I don’t need happiness’, beneath the neck ‘I live in sin, I die laughing’. The scar on this criminals face is usually forcibly applied as a punishment to any convict who has informed or betrayed his fellow inmates.
10. Prison is this thief’s home, he is of the highest rank in the thieves’ social hierarchy. His ring tattoos show that he was the only underage detainee in his circle of thieves, and that he is an ‘anti-social’: an inveterate transgressor of the prison regime, who completely refuses to work. The text on the arm reads ‘Communism only produces victims’.
200 MOTELS (1971) directed by Tony Palmer and Frank Zappa - this thing is a crazy trip!