Russian Criminal Tattoos and Playing Cards

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This book reveals the importance of playing cards in Russian criminal culture. Prohibited by the prison authorities, the beautiful hand-made decks are constructed from innocuous materials procured from the everyday routine of prison life. During construction both the cards and their designs are expertly manipulated so they can be read. This process is described here for the first time. Extensive diagrams show how the cards are made, while decks of actual prison cards are reproduced in facsimile.

150 previously unpublished photographs from the Arkady Bronnikov collection reveal the connection between criminals, tattoos and cards. The respect commanded by any criminal was directly related to his ability to win at cards. Failure to pay a gambling debt could result in a forcibly applied tattoo, lowering the bearer’s status. Fingers, ears, even eyes, might be lost — cut off in the presence of other prisoners as witnesses.