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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Your Body As a Canvas

MTA tattooist in his booth at the recent TattooExpo Moscow 2007, held at VVTs.
Where the flesh peeps out in that no man's land between T-shirt and back pockets, just at eye level on the metro, you might catch some unexpected sights -- like a pair of purple eyes staring back at you and sprouting eyebrows of flowering vines.

Yelena Volkova, a 37-year-old from Novosibirsk, turned at the top of the metro stairs to reveal two genuine brown eyes, crowned only with a few piercings. "That way I can always see behind me," laughed Volkova, who said the tattoo on her lower back was her third.

"I got the first, a really simple line design, to cover up my caesarian," she said. "A year later, though, I turned it into this," she said, pulling up her shirt to show off a panther jumping, teeth sharp around her belly button.

Volkova was on her way to the capital's first international tattoo convention, TattooExpo Moscow 2007, held recently at the All-Russia Exhibition Center, or VVTs.

Inside the exhibition pavilion, tops were skimpy as attendees bared their art. Most of the festival visitors were contemplating embellishments or additional tattoos, describing it as an addiction.

"The first changes the way you look at things," said Anastasia Ikonnikova, a tattooist at the only studio in her native Ivanov. "[Tattoos] are living pictures, and people want them to keep up with their lives," she said.

Down the rows of booths, tattooists applied fresh ink. The mechanical buzz filling the expo pavilion was drowned out late in the day with competitions for the "Best of Day" tattoos, judged by members of the Russian Professional Tattoo Masters guild.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
A leg tattoo on display at TattooExpo.
The guild, which was formed in St. Petersburg in 1996, aims to lend credentials to its vetted members, because in Russia there are no licenses or professional qualifications for tattoo masters and studios. The guild's magazine, Pro-Tattoo, is only the second of its kind, focused on Russian tattoo artists.

Experts at the expo said a professional would never strive to convince others to get tattooed. Looking through photo or Internet archives of a tattoo master's work is the only way to choose a studio, they said.

However, many masters are not part of the guild, said tattooist Niyazi Baimov, 31, who is not a member and did not attend the expo. Baimov, known as Dali, works at Marilyn, one of the oldest tattoo studios in Moscow. He said a real, professional tattoo master could be defined as an artist with medical training, who could also do tattoos -- "we hope."

Dali got his start like many of his contemporaries, he said, by first getting tattooed himself. The adornments have become a part of him, he said. "When you look in the mirror, you'd be surprised if you didn't have two ears. ... I can't live without my tattoos now."

With the growth in the popularity of tattoos, Moscow's tattoo masters say the biggest change has been in their clients' understanding. People are increasingly moving on from the smallest cigarette pack-size tattoo (starting at 1,500 rubles) and decorations "on the butt," and opting for large drawings, Dali said.

"Invisible" tattoos -- apparent only under ultraviolet light -- are the new rage for people afraid of ink. The fluoride ink appeared in Russian clubs from U.S. hospital rooms, where it was used first to aid in medical operations.

Tattoo culture is now as widespread as the term, lifted from a Polynesian dialect by English explorer James Cook in 1769, but in Russia there is still a criminal stigma attached it.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Tattoo artists say the trend is for clients to increasingly request large drawings.
Artist Dmitry Maslak, know as Christ Kostei at his Moscow Tatu 3000 and XKTattoo studios, was circumspect himself about tattoos early on because of their stereotype as a criminal aesthetic, he said. He was awestruck by a tattoo artist's books during a trip near the border with Japan and, already an artist, he spent months copying from the book to paper until a friend asked him for a tattoo.

After that, "he was like human propaganda for me," Kostei said of his friend, who served in the navy and quickly earned Kostei a boatload of new clients.

"I fell in love with it," he said, because "tattoo is an art without beginning or end."


Marilyn tattoo salon,
school and shop, 3 Marksistskaya Ul., office 519, 911-9433, M. Marksistkaya,

Tatu 3000, 182 Prospekt Mira, 228-5556, M. Prospekt Mira,

New Ethnic, 20 Plotnikov Per., 241-4301, 748-9709, M. Smolenskaya,

Tattoo Angels, Leningradsky Prospect 35, 783-6964, M. Dynamo,