Sailing ships, stars, angels and executioners — The Mark of Cain chronicles the vanishing practice and language of Russian Criminal Tattoos. Captured in some of Russia’s most notorious prisons, including the fabled White Swan, the film traces the animus of the flowers of this carnal art by way of the brutality of its origins- the penitentiary and the criminal environment. Incisive interviews with prisoners, guards, and criminologists reveal the secret language of The Zone and The Code of Thieves of the vory v zakone. As early as the 1920’s, Russian prisons and Gulag began to attract the attention of researchers. The prisoners of the Stalinist Gulag, or “Zone,” as it is called, developed a complex social structure that incorporated highly symbolic tattooing as a mark of rank. The very existence of these inmates at prisons and forced labor camps was treated by the state as a deep secret, and their tattoo art was considered a forbidden topic.
In the last decade, Russia’s prison population has exploded; overcrowding has reached unimaginable proportions. Few other nations have had such a massive prison population. The most conservative estimates suggest that in the last decades, over thirty million of Russia’s inmates have had tattoos even though the process is against the law inside prison.
According to The Book of Genesis, God placed a mark on the world’s first murderer before sending him into exile. The mark of Cain proclaimed its bearer as a criminal and social outcast; for centuries, prisoners and those who broke social codes were forcibly tattooed. In Russian prisons, tattooing emerged as a visual mode of communication linked with social division. The Mark of Cain tells the story of a fading art form and how that practice’s death reflects transition in broader Russian society.