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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tattooing's Long Trip From Prison to Parlor

Tattoos and the art of tattooing -- once the realm of Gulag prisoners using a recipe of urine, mashed ashes and ground up boot soles -- are swiftly becoming accepted by Russian society.

"Well, not so much accepted, as tolerated," said a goateed Timofei, 22, who uses only his first name and operates a tattoo studio at home called Dark Side (Metro Varshavskaya, tel. 113-6847).

Timofei, whose home studio has flourished since it opened 4 years ago, said he is now booked up to four days in advance by tattoo-seekers. Like others interviewed for this article, Timofei said business is booming for Moscow tattoo artists, whether they work independently or in parlors that often offer a range of services like body piercing and the cosmetic tattooing of eyebrows and lips.

Still, Timofei and others bemoan the artistic limitations forced upon them by a clientele with unrefined tastes.

"I'm ashamed of our people," Timofei said with a snigger, showing a picture of a roaring tiger with its claws bared. "This is my most popular tattoo. Very bloodthirsty, pointless, primitive. I've probably done that one about 60 times. We have few aesthetes here -- they come in, pick something out that has a bloody grimace, they're set."

Among the growing dozens of Moscow tattoo artists, Rustam Yangulov, who operates an established first floor parlor called Piton (13 Srednyaya Pereyaslavskaya Ulitsa, tel. 280-4023) said he prides himself on his efforts to cultivate a more creative clientele. "If someone comes in wanting me to copy something from a magazine, I steer him toward something more original. But this happens rarely. We cater to the intellectuals: artists and the like."

Russia's tattoo culture is indeed divided into groups: The bikers have their artists, the skinheads theirs, the bandits and businessmen theirs. And, perhaps, it's these divisions that account for the lack of a cohesive tattoo culture as exists in the West, with technique- and information-swapping conventions or tattoo magazines. Apart from bikers, Moscow tattoo artists said they rarely get together to discuss their art.

"Maybe because of the competition," offered soft-spoken Dima Mayevsky, 24, whose professional strength appeared to be his ability to touch up bad prison and army tattoos. His nameless one-man studio has been operating for two years out of his apartment (Metro Otradnaya, tel. 403-1988).

As a rule, Moscow's artists either work out of their homes or in a parlor with one or two other artists. Surprisingly, prices are not the major difference between home studios and established parlors. Those surveyed for this article uniformly charged about $100 for a work the size of a cigarette pack and $50 for one the size of a matchbox. Those prices vary by $30 to $40 depending on the complexity of the image and whether the artist thought it up.

Parlors are often oases of daintiness departing from the grungy stereotype. Take for example the polished young Irina Kovalyk, who works in the Kapriz parlor (53 Prospekt Vernadskogo, tel. 432-6895) with space on the third floor of the Hotel Druzhba.

"We do women, mostly, who want flowers or a little butterfly," she said, adding that tattooing "pictures" is her second job. Like other women tattoo artists, Kovalyk mainly does permanent lip-lining ($250), eyebrow-accenting ($200) and permanent eye-lining ($250).

Prices are similar at the bright and bustling Izkusstvo parlor (52/54 Bolshaya Yakimanka Ulitsa, tel. 238-5413), where Lena Osipova said her customers are charged 10,000 rubles ($1.84) per square centimeter, a rate comparable to that charged by other artists.

The principle debate between parlor advocates and those who promote home studios is not over pricing, but over quality.

"Parlors do only satisfactory work; more than once, clients have come to me to get something corrected after going to a parlor," said Timofei, sipping on tea. "I started off in a parlor and I can tell you that they work carelessly there. A lot of the money goes to the parlor itself, and some of the responsibility seems to be lifted from the individual artist. When it's one on one, the responsibility is yours, so the contours turn out even, the paint is applied well, and you pay attention to detail."

But the simple fact remains that parlors lend an air of stability and reliability. Osipova maintained, "People trust parlors."

Trust, too, is the operative word when it comes to cleanliness and hygiene at Moscow's tattoo parlors. A random sampling of tattoo artists found that none had had any contact with a health inspector or any city authority. Officials with the appropriate body, Moscow's Central Organization for the Licensing of Medical Activity, refused Tuesday to give the pertinent regulations, if any, without first considering a written request.

Mayevsky summed up the situation. "It's not very developed, I don't know about city regulations or inspections. No one has ever come by."

However, the consequences for being tattooed in unsterile conditions are dire. Kathleen Gulledge, chief nurse at the American Medical Center, said that it is possible to contract HIV and Hepatitis B and C this way.

"People should know that there is a big difference between 'disinfected' and 'sterilized.' Disinfecting is just like washing your dishes -- they're clean, but not sterile. If something is sterile, there are no living organisms on it," she said. "So if, for example, a tattoo artist is reusing their needle, and they're merely disinfecting it, that could still be dangerous. It is nearly impossible to clean a tattoo needle thoroughly because of all the chambers and intricate parts."

Regulations aside. Cleanliness and sterilization seem to depend on the individual -- some parlor artists, their gazes unwavering, stressed their concern for sterile conditions while flies landed lazily on their equipment. Overall, however, both independent and parlor artists show a reasonable degree of professionalism about cleanliness: Rubber gloves, disposable needles and sterilization machines seemed to be the norm among operations visited for this article. And, artists said they had visited their local medical centers to find out about sterilization and sanitation techniques.

When it comes to pain, most artists agreed that while getting tattooed is generally uncomfortable, it rarely requires serious anesthetic. Most of them, however, offer local, topical anesthetics to those who want it, typically for no additional charge.

It's hard to tell how much of these no-pain claims are mere bravado. Pasha Patanov, 20, who recently got an intricate tattoo with a machinery motif from Mayevsky, said, "Well, I guess it did hurt a bit, at first," then, grinning saucily, he continued, "but soon it didn't, and became ... pleasant."

Of course, pain is not a big issue for the Russian prisoners whose bodies still serve as canvases to an art far more primitive than is practiced in Moscow's parlors and studios. The tattoo culture of Soviet-era prisons, complete with special codes and symbols, is well known.

For example, a six- or eight-point star indicated that the wearer wanted to join a group of people who were actively opposed to the rules of the prison or labor camp, and refused to do any work. Others wore symbols: Lenin's profile represented the propaganda title "Leader of the October Revolution," whose Russian acronym spells "thief." Timofei, who is planning to start writing a book on tattoos this winter, added that some prisoners were forcibly tattooed with a symbol that marked them as "untrustworthy," or, for homosexuals, an image of a woman with a snake. So although tattoos were once so proudly worn by bandits that they risked arrest (as they usually gave away the wearer's criminal exploits), not everyone wanted one. "People even try to avoid it," said Osipova. "They ask whether the image they want means anything in particular before they get it done."

Timofei underscored what he said was a real danger. "If you get a tattoo which doesn't reflect your status, you will answer for it. If it's a bandit status symbol done in the labor camp style -- simple, in blue ink -- and the wearer isn't a high-ranking thief, they'll kill him. Personally, I think those tattoos are ludicrous. I don't do them."

Neither do most artists, and there isn't much of a demand. It doesn't help its appeal that prison ink, called zhonka, consisted of dirty ashes, ground up boot heels and urine.

Russian tattoo history predates the Soviet prison experience by centuries. Historians believe the art began in Russia with northern peoples like the Yakuts and Evyenks. Captain Cooke did his part by bringing the tattoo to Europe in the late 1700's. Predictably, tattoo enthusiasts are abuzz with talk of which historical figures bore decorated skin: Catherine the Great apparently received a tattoo on her nether regions, while some say Stalin sported a skull on his chest.