Art is a conduit for creativity, emotional expression and healing — no less true inside prisons.
Making art behind bars is a source of hope, agency and growth for many incarcerated artists, who work in spite of difficult and sometimes oppressive conditions. With limited access to materials and an abundance of time, incarcerated artists must make do with what’s available. The result is often incredible creative acts of ingenuity, resilience and resourcefulness.
Below, Prison Journalism Project has curated seven stories about art on the inside — and the skill and passion necessary to pull it off. From black-and-gray tattoos and floor wax paint, to zine-making and holiday decorations, these pieces from Prison Journalism Project contributors underscore the art of making art inside.
“How to Build a Snowman in Prison” by Tina Lunney: “There are no bright colors in prison, so we use our limited resources to make it festive for Christmas.”
“A Brief Lesson on Prison Ink” by Calen “Wolf” Whidden: “The process in which these tattoos are [made], with the equipment used to do it, under circumstances you cannot imagine is jaw dropping. It’s possible to get a tattoo in prison that rivals a tattoo applied in a professional, accredited establishment. In some instances, it may even be a little better.”
“In Prison, They Call Me Picasso” by John W. Zenc: “I’ve been making art for decades. I came to prison in 1977 on a 7-years-to-life sentence, and began doing hundreds of drawings — I’ve created some 1,500 pieces in all. The prisoners and staff here have nicknamed me Picasso.”
“A View of My Cell on a Sweltering Summer Day” by Arnoldo Juarez: “Back in June, I was trying to stave off the heat during a sizzling weekend. Here is an annotated illustration of me in my cell.”
“News & Chaos: An Illustrated Opinion” by O. Smith: “I strive to be an informed person — my own political ideologies are formed by human rights or lack of … ”
“Program Offers Incarcerated Artists a Platform for Self-Healing” by Edwin E. Chavez: “Being vulnerable in prison can be challenging, but art can offer a kind of freedom of mind and heart.”
“The Redeeming Value of Art in Prison” by Bobby Bostic: “Prisoners tend to find atonement in their art. With limited resources, they find beauty in the ugliness that surrounds them. In the confines of prison, art represents redemption. Art assists inmates in their quest of rehabilitation.”
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.