Cellblock Visions - prison art in america
prison art in america - Phyllis Kornfield

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Jail Art

Jail art: a loose term referring to art that is recognizably born in the penitentiary - the mainstream - the "academy" of the prison arts culture, the art most admired, in demand, and commercially successful within the walls.

Tattoo And Biker Art

"Anything with a biker on it is worth four or five packs."
____Anonymous inmate

Tattooing is prohibited in prison, its practice punishable by lock-up and loss of privileges - but it is an art of rebellion - and it thrives.

Reasons for the prohibition - offered by inmates:

  • A tattoo gun can be used as a weapon.
  • Running a tattoo shop in prison is electrically dangerous. "A lot of guys blow out the lights with their machine, those in the block know who’s tattooing and they’ll yell down STOP, YOU SON OF A BITCH. But some guys, they know what they’re doing."
  • The process can spread communicable diseases through an infected needle.
  • Certain tattoos foment friction. "Like a nazi sign or a KKK, they drive some people crazy and incite them to riot."

A jailhouse tattoo gun is constructed of found objects. For the needle, a guitar string or paper clip is sharpened to a fine point on a rock or cinderblock. It is run through the hollow shaft of a ball point pen and the tip protrudes slightly from the writing end. The string is attached to a small motor, usually from a walkman, and hooked up to batteries. The apparatus is fortified for stability by being taped to popsicle sticks or a plastic eating utensil. The pen remains stable while the point jumps.

Anonymous sleeve

A man in a muscle shirt displays a sleeve of tattoos in a collage style, including a self-portrait, death heads, and the prison watchtower . A dark-haired beauty, located in a more private part of his body, looks out at us.

Anonymous body shirt

The ink of choice is waterproof black ink but it’s rarely available and very expensive. Convicts invent a myriad of concoctions - scrapings from soft pastels, charcoal pencils, and carbon paper - the ash of burned books, lightweight paper preferred. The flying soot lands on a shiny magazine cover, is scraped off, and mixed with toothpaste and water. Green ink is produced from green toothpaste ("Crest is best") or Prell shampoo - blue from Head and Shoulders or Selsen Blue - red from Robitussen cough syrup.

"A tattoo is a picture that never gets put away, it always shows. A friend of mine - I gave him his tats - got shot. I had a certain good feeling that a part of me went in to the ground with him."
__Anonymous inmate


Fantasy Art

Fantasy art has a particular definition in prison. It does not refer to any and all fantasies, but is specifically applied to drawings and paintings created in a certain style and depicting a repertoire of certain images.

The style derives from much of tattoo flash - forms outlined in black and variously enhanced with shading and color.

The most popular images arise out of the medieval world. The same dragons, wizards, unicorns, knights and damsels, gargoyles, swords and daggers that are punctured into human skin, appear on paper and cardboard, handkerchiefs, old t-shirts stretched over boards, prison issue pillow cases and bits of sheeting. Instead of being singular images randomly placed as they are in tattoos, these are deliberately composed into an imagined environment.

Inmates say that when you look at fantasy art, you go into a whole new world. It pulls you in, irresistibly. You quit prison for an unknown landscape or architecture - a surreal composition alive with heroes and villians - an escapist creation that lends power to the otherwise powerless inmate.

Nothing for Nothing
Will Paradise "Nothing for Nothing" pen and ink
Time Ends
Mike "Joker" Cramer "Time Ends" pencil


Art About Being In Jail

Sick of the ugliness around them, prisoners vow not to reproduce it in their artwork - But - sooner or later - they find themselves compelled to make a picture of prison. Bars define the inmates’ view of everything - it is their primary motif. Bars frame the door that cages them in their cells, bars form the gate that leads out of the cellblock, and bars stripe every window in the institution. Razor-wire, chicken-wire, and barbed-wire network the picture plane. Endless repetitions of stone, brick, blocks, and tiles imprint themselves on the mind’s eye.

Lenore Scott "Prison Life" acrylics

"The guard tower and the keyhole represent the history of doing time. The old time prisoner is busting rock. I become part of the history in the little isolation cell with a rickety light bulb. The doll still has a heart and believes in God despite the crimes she might be guilty of." ~Lenore Scott

Larry Mocks "Hidden Side" mixed media

"Being in prison for long periods of time can bring hidden sides of an inmates personality out - animal like, and you may witness how a human being can allow that behavior to surface when being victimized, intimidated or mistreated in some form by inmates and guards. It’s like a jungle sometimes." ~Larry Mocks

Joy Kaulity "Nightmare from Hell" acrylics

" I dreamed this. It kept coming to me. I remember every part of it. Since I painted it, it stopped." ~Joy Kaulity

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Cell Block Visions: Prison Art in America
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