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The tattoo as a document

Kristina Sundberg (ALM, Uppsala, Sweden)
Ulrika Kjellman (ALM, Uppsala, Sweden)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 8 January 2018




The purpose of this paper is to investigate how tattoos can be considered documents of an individual’s identity, experiences, status and actions in a given context, relating to ideas stating that archival records/documents can be of many types and have different functions. The paper also wants to discuss how tattoos serve as a bank of memories and evidence on a living body; in this respect, the tattooed body can be viewed as an archive, which immortalises and symbolises the events and relationships an individual has experienced in his or her life, and this in relation to a specific social and cultural context.


To discuss these issues, the authors take the point of departure in the tattoo practice of Russian/Soviet prisoners. The tattoo material referred to is from the “Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive”. The archive is created by FUEL Design and Publishing that holds the meanings of the tattoos as explained in Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volume I-III. The authors exemplify this practice with two photographs of Soviet/Russian prisoners and their tattoos. By using a semiotic analysis that contextualises these images primarily through literature studies, the authors try to say something about what meaning these tattoos might carry.


The paper argues that it is possible to view the tattoo as a document, bound to an individual, reflecting his/her life and a given social and cultural context. As documents, they provide the individual with the essential evidence of his or her endeavours in a criminal environment. They also function as an individual’s memory of events and relationships (hardships and comradeships). Subsequently, the tattoos help create and sustain an identity. Finally, the tattoo presents itself as a document that may represent a critique of a dominant society or simply the voice of the alienated.


By showing how tattoos can be seen as documents and memory records, this paper brings a new kind of item into information and archival studies. It also uses theories and concepts from information and archival studies to put new light on the functions of tattoos.



Sundberg, K. and Kjellman, U. (2018), "The tattoo as a document", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 74 No. 1, pp. 18-35.



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