TTTism is pleased to present The Russian Tattoo Tour. This video documents the travels of Tyumen-born and Moscow-based tattooist, Herman IX (@gera_ix), as he transits across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Herman’s footage is, in part, the remainder of a vast, multi-city work trip that included over fifteen guest spots at tattoo studios around the country. Additionally, Herman and his colleague, videographer Stepan Vetoshnikov, utilized this opportunity in order to capture and represent the diversity of Russian tattoo art and culture for an international audience. We present a short interview with Herman below.
Could you provide some context behind the production of The Russian Tattoo Tour? When and where did you shoot? What, specifically, were you initially trying to make a video ‘about’ and what motived you to create the film?
Back when I was an active graffiti artist, I used to dream of visiting other regions of Russia. I had a lot of acquaintances from the Internet, and my dream was to travel to the Far East of Russia. Back then, I was young and couldn’t afford such a trip. When I started making money through tattooing, I realized that I was in a position to do it. It didn’t matter where I was: as a tattooer, I would be able to make a profit. I decided to take the opportunity, make it public, and develop a quality, full-scale project. That’s why I created a kind of visual identity for the tour and a website (www.therussiantattootour.com) accompanying the route. I also took a friend (who doubled as my cameraman) with me to film the tour.
The whole project was done with my own money, without any sponsors. I paid the cameraman myself. From early September until late October 2015, we went from Kaliningrad through Saint-Petersburg, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Samara, Ufa, Chelyabinsk, Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Khabarovsk, to Vladivostok. We covered almost all the way by trains along the Trans-Siberian Railway, which is about 10 000 km.
What, in your mind, is distinct about Russian tattooing and Russian tattoo culture? Is there a recognizable visual specificity to it, or is its distinction centered around Russia’s geographical breadth, as well as its (relative) physical and political distance from Europe?
I’d initially intended to show the distinctive features of Russian tattooing in this video and to convey the atmosphere of the Russian prison tattoo aesthetic. But in fact, it appeared that the only distinctive feature of the Russian tattoo culture was that the farther it was away from Moscow, the less developed it was. I think this is because fewer people have the desire for inner growth. Of course there were exceptions, but generally this was the case. The prison tattoo aesthetic dwells in its own, parallel world. I certainly did have an idea of finding my way into this world as an outside observer, but it was very difficult. So, when I understood that I wouldn’t be able to show the distinctive features of that tattooing, I decided to reveal the distinctive atmosphere of each Russian region. There is indeed something peculiar in each of them. It became my goal to try to influence Russian tattooing so that the distribution of its development would not only be concentrated in Moscow. I wanted artists from the regions I visited to start looking for their place in tattooing, to travel Russia with the same interest as myself—as if they were in some other country.
How does this video work as a document of your travels? Were those travels based around documenting tattoos, or did you collect the footage organically?
The documentary that eventually resulted tried to convey the vibes of the tour without focusing on tattoos. It included short interviews with people in which they speak about their attitude toward the culture. No doubt it was very difficult! It was my first experience doing this sort of work and I had to deal with everything: logistics, records, finances, and I also had to make tattoos and try to make contact with people and get quality interviews. We would stay in each city for two days. I would work for most of that time, which generally left one evening to take a walk in the city. At night, we would go to the next city, where I would start working in the morning.
I also published a limited-edition book for archival purposes, where I have put together all the tattoos I had made throughout the tour with life-size transfers—all in all, 94 tattoos. All my tattoos were made based on my previously prepared designs and their price was fixed at 3000 Rubles (50$) for any of them.
In the US and Europe, Russia is primarily and popularly known for its ‘prison tattoo culture’. Your video is a much more holistic representation of Russian tattoo culture. Were you trying to show this other aspect of Russian tattooing as a corrective or supplement to the overrepresentation of Russian tattooing as Russian prison tattooing?
I’m very interested in making a project on Russian prison tattoo culture, but as I said above—this is a closed world. I haven’t found a way to enter it so far. It seems to me that everything we have on this subject is information which is 30-40 years old. And it would be interesting to show it as it is now when all these “concepts” and “laws” have transformed. Historically, those tattoos had to be earned and deserved; now, everything is decided by money.