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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tattoo Fans Bare Their Art to Russia

Roll up your sleeves and bare your chests. If you've had it done, it's time to flaunt it. The art of the tattoo, for many years the preserve of a demi-monde of soldiers, secret societies and convicts, is emerging into the mainstream.

Russia's first International Tattoo Convention opened Friday night at the Hermitage club, opposite the city's militia headquarters. The gathering attracted an eclectic collection of ex-convicts, bikers, rockers, Amsterdam clubbers with studs in their cheeks, American tattoo gurus and curious Muscovite greasers.

"The authorities used to see us as enemies of the people," said Dennis, an organizer of the convention. "If you had a tattoo, long hair, leathers, the militia would hassle you constantly for being an 'antisocial element,' search you for drugs, accuse you of homosexuality, rip your earrings out. Now it's a bit better, but people still think of tattoos as an exclusively criminal thing."

The convention hopes to raise the profile of tattooing as an art form and introduce Russian tattooists to Western artists and equipment. The two-day festival features tattoo booths and a tattoo beauty contest. Leading tattooists will give masterclasses, and Russia's most exotic patterned people will show themselves off.

Andrei Iy, a Manchurian karate champion and co-organizer of the event, endured a tattoo ritual requiring 30 razor incisions without anesthetic as his initiation to a karate clan.

"There is a whole code of tattoos in prison, in the mafia, and in secret societies. It's an ancient Manchurian warrior tradition to endure the pain of the razor to become one of the brotherhood," he said.

Former prisoners displayed the most striking tattoos. Unlike the Western version, Russian convict tattoos are monochrome. Andrei Bogdanov, 25, spent 3 1/2 years in prison colonies near Arkhangelsk for "drunken young stupidity." Three-quarters of his body was patterned. On his shoulder was an epaulette with a swastika, showing his rank in the prison's gang hierarchy.

"Until about 1986, if the prison authorities found a tattoo with a swastika, a double-headed eagle, or an SS sign, they would give you a shot of morphine and slice the skin off on the spot," said Bogdanov.

"I reckon tattoos are going to make it pretty big around here," said David Yurkew, whose back and arms were covered in scenes from J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit."