The passion among Russians to decorate the body with tattoos is dated back to centuries. This age-old art is becomimg more and more popular with its new and distinct forms of expressions.
The growing popularity of body art in Russia was laid bare at a Moscow exhibition due to close on Sunday, at which the options ranged from tattooing to tongue splitting and mid-air suspension from hooks embedded under the skin.
Advertisement"People are trying to become individuals," explained Olesya Crow, a local tattoo artist -- she uses only her commercial name -- among dozens of exhibitors at the Moscow International Body Art Festival.
"Society has become more tolerant and has developed. Tattoos are now a branch of art."
The setting of the festival, in an exhibition centre built to display Soviet agricultural and scientific prowess and dominated by a statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, might have appeared incongruous.
But Crow, who also takes part in human suspension, in which metal hooks are fixed under the skin of a person's chest, back or legs prior to hoisting them into the air, sometimes for hours, said her work represented social progress.
"Tattoos are now seen as something beautiful, an adornment of the body," as opposed to the stigma they carried in Soviet times, when they were associated with prisoners and crime, she said.
As for human suspensions, which Crow supervises, having undertaken four years of medical training, they "can have a healing effect, give a spiritual lift."
The virtues of human suspension and tattoo art however are not universally appreciated in Russia, as was made clear by one security guard vetting those entering the exhibition.
Recalling his childhood in a Soviet orphanage, where children would melt shoe rubber to make tattoo ink, he put the current popularity of tattoos down to the standard Kremlin bugbear: American cultural imperialism.
"It's ideological warfare. A propaganda war is not about killing people but destroying society from within," he declared from under a black baseball cap, asking not to be named.
"This is moronic. If you want to draw, use a sketchbook or canvas."
As if to prove the pervasiveness of American culture, those attending this month's festival included Darren McKeag and Josh Coburn of the company Slingin' Ink Tattoos, based in the US state of Ohio.
They insisted Russians could benefit from greater awareness of the possibilities on offer.
Such options as having one's tongue split down the middle, or scarification, an ancient practice in which the skin is deliberately scarred for artistic effect, are "still surfacing in Russia," McKeag said.
"People in the States are already more modified than people in Russia."
"It's my goal to open up the option, make people understand it's something out there for people to be part of," said his partner, Coburn.
In fact Russian tattoo artists say their trade has at least one prestigious precursor in the person of the last tsar, Nicholas II, who is said to have had a tattoo made on his own body while visiting Japan as a young man.
Russians' long fascination with physical oddity was affirmed by the manager of another unusual display in a neighbouring pavilion of the sprawling All-Russia Exhibition Centre.
Natalya Kupchenko oversees a collection of preserved foetuses and waxworks of people with deformities inspired by the anatomy collection of Tsar Peter the Great.
Thrown in for good measure is the supposed penis, pickled for posterity, of Grigory Rasputin, notorious advisor to Russia's last royals.
In Kupchenko's view the modern taste for tattoos and other body art cannot be said to constitute progress.
"A lot of things happen here simply because they were once forbidden," she remarked. "Later on these people will understand it's better to have clear skin."
And as critics in both the cultural and political spheres warn of a clampdown by President Vladimir Putin on liberties gained in the 1990s, there are other signs that the role of body art in Russia remains ambiguous.
Among the exhibitors at this month's event, tattoo trade supplier Kirill Baikov insisted that tattoos were about "politics, self-expression and freedom."
But he went on to acknowledge that his own political views might not be easily stomached by critics in Russia and the West urging the country to democratise.
Explaining he had a Nazi insignia tattooed on his own body and formerly participated in one of the far right groups blamed for a growing toll of racist killings in Russia, he admitted: "I'm very totalitarian and nationalist."
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