Aleksandr Borisov, the lone tattooist of western Russia’s Samara penitentiary, has to improvise: He uses a windup mechanical razor, a sharpened guitar string, and ink that’s a mixture of burned-down boot soles and urine.

His story is one of a number chronicled in The Mark of Cain, filmmaker Alix Lambert’s effort to record the tattoo traditions of Russian inmates. For her first full-length documentary, Lambert traveled to some of the country’s most notorious prisons.

“Prison tattooing happens all over the world,” says Lambert, 33, “but there is nothing up to this level of specific meaning and communication. And it’s disappearing with every year, which made it even more compelling to me to document.”

Under communism, inmates were members of a prison society bound by a “thieves’ tradition”—a strict code they etched onto their bodies: A convict’s sentence and status could be read in the number of church cupolas inked onto his chest or in the volume of stars drawn on his knees. But this tradition has gone the way of the Soviet Union: Young prisoners, Lambert says, instead now adorn themselves with tattoos of dollar signs and American pop icons.

Lambert, who was born and raised in D.C., moved to New York in 1986 to attend the School of Visual Arts. An article on Russian prison tattoos sparked her interest in the subject—she even taught herself to wield a needle by practicing on a cadaver pig—and in 1994 she flew to Moscow for Russia’s first-ever tattoo convention. There she met a criminologist who had photographed prisoners’ tattoos for years and written the only known book on the topic. “I figured if there was anyone that knew about this, I would find them there,” she says.

Lambert returned to Russia in 1999 and assembled a crew to begin filming. Realizing that access to prisoners in Moscow jails would be restricted, the filmmaker sought out prisons in rural Russia, often cajoling her way inside by knocking back a few glasses of vodka with officials. Her gender also turned out to be an unexpected asset: While staffers led Lambert’s male production assistants on “official” tours, the filmmaker was left unmonitored to talk with prisoners.

Lambert shot footage over just two-and-a-half weeks, on a budget of $40,000 put up by a close friend. After edits were finished, in early 2000, the film was shelved, until a Nightline piece on the project caught the attention of Canadian distributor Films Transit, which picked it up this year. The Mark of Cain has since shown in several international film festivals and was nominated last month for an Independent Spirit Award.

Lambert, who is based in Los Angeles, will next travel to New Zealand to follow extreme surfers. “We’re going in search of the unsurfed wave,” she says. —Shauna Miller

The Mark of Cain will screen at 6:50 p.m. Tuesday, April 23, at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge, 1927 Florida Ave. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-0090.