ARTS & CULTURE
12/10/2013 09:17 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Photographer Captures Mesmerizing Photos Of Russian Mafia Tombstones

The 1990s was a decade of excess for Russia, as a select group of citizens close to the government enjoyed the spoils of a newly privatized economic system. Capitalism exploded in the market place and those citizens, glorified mobsters and mafiosos, relished the cash flows and did what some money-hungry individuals with limited institutional restrictions would do -- they started killing people to preserve their wealth.

Its been nearly two decades since the so-called Mafia Wars began in Russia and its neighboring states, but it's almost impossible to forget the specific mixture of decadence and violence that reigned supreme. One need only to trek through a local graveyard to wax nostalgia and remember the days of kneecapping and protection rings. The extravagant tombstones that lay untouched in cities like Yekaterinburg, Russia and Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine stand as monuments to the tumultuous period.

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Denis Tarasov, Untitled (from the Essence Series), 2013, C-print, 119.2 x 101.5 cm, (c) Denis Tarasov, 2013, Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

Photographer Denis Tarasov has set about documenting these strange relics of yore; intricately engraved tombstones that depict the deceased they way they wish to be remembered -- whether they're straddling expensive cars, enjoying fine alcohol or modeling their favorite leather vest. His series, "Essence," showcases the bizarre phenomenon of modern culture, one that celebrates material wealth in the face of death.

"In the nineties, the graves of criminal authorities began to have large and expensive tombstones -- at a height of about three meters [10 feet] and engraved with a full-length portrait and an expensive car in the background," Tarasov said in an email exchange with The Huffington Post. "This was done primarily to stand out and surpass all the dead in the cemetery, as well as the people that try to outdo everyone in life."

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Denis Tarasov, Untitled (from the Essence Series), 2013, C-print, 119.2 x 101.5 cm, (c) Denis Tarasov, 2013, Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

These gravestones are not unique occurrences, Tarasov explained. They exist in major cities across Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and other former Soviet countries, usually concentrated in one area within a cemetery -- an exclusive (and expensive) space that seems too eerily like an eternal VIP resting place. While most of the tombs belong to gangsters, the trend was upheld by heads of Roma and Armenian families, as well as other wealthy people with a flair for a dramatic afterlife.

"Despite the fact that they are all made in the same style, they still differ from each other," Tarasov noted. "Each has some peculiarity, some distinguishing feature, something that is for me a kind of punctum. A punctum can serve as more than just the figure on the gravestone. It can be the scenery on it, the other surrounding gravestones or nearby shrubs or flowers."

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Denis Tarasov, Untitled (from the Essence Series), 2013, C-print, 119.2 x 101.5 cm, (c) Denis Tarasov, 2013, Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

Tarasov's photographs are on view now as part of Saatchi Gallery's ongoing exhibition, "Body Language." The show highlights the works of 19 emerging international artists, all of whom explore the human form in one way or another. From Dana Schutz's paintings to Kasper Kovitz's sculptures, the collection runs the gamut of grotesque and picturesque, pushing the boundaries of figurative work.

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Denis Tarasov, Untitled (from the Essence Series), 2013, C-print, 119.2 x 101.5 cm, (c) Denis Tarasov, 2013, Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

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Denis Tarasov, Untitled (from the Essence Series), 2013, C-print, 119.2 x 101.5 cm, (c) Denis Tarasov, 2013, Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

denis

Denis Tarasov, Untitled (from the Essence Series), 2013, C-print, 119.2 x 101.5 cm, (c) Denis Tarasov, 2013, Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

denis

Denis Tarasov, Untitled (from the Essence Series), 2013, C-print, 119.2 x 101.5 cm, (c) Denis Tarasov, 2013, Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

denis

Denis Tarasov, Untitled (from the Essence Series), 2013, C-print, 119.2 x 101.5 cm, (c) Denis Tarasov, 2013, Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

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Installation view, Marianne Vitale & Denis Tarasov, ©Sam Drake, 2013, Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

"Body Language" will be on display from November 20, 2013 to March 16, 2014 at Saatchi Gallery in London.

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