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Chicano Prison Art


aztec warriors
Aztec Warriors

A prominent form of Chicano prison art is called "panos" illustration, a variation of envelope art that grew out of the Chicano barrios and Southwest prisons of the early 20th Century. Designed with ball-point pens on white handkerchiefs, "panos" can actually afford a great deal of detail and complexity, telling a story of a prisoner that cannot be expressed through words alone.

The tradition of the Chicanos' panos-illustration dates back to the 1930s and 1940s, however some curators insist that it may be as old as the French occupational prison system imposed on Mexico following the revolution of 1910. During the middle of the 20th Century, most prisons only permitted Whites to own pens and pencils to send messages to their families outside of prison. Because many Hispanics, Chicanos, and African-Americans within the prison system at that time could not read or write, they found an expressive substitute in elaborate illustration.

Panos is rooted in defiance and Chicano cultural pride, growing explosively during the 1960s and 1970s with the rise of Cesar Chavez's struggle to gain rights for migrant workers in the southwest United States. According to curator Martha Henry, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, the Mexican culture is a "visual culture," and has historically handed down its tradition through images.

Panos prison art is passed down from prisoner to prisoner, one generation to the next, and possesses its own unique styles and techniques. Prisoners record panos by maintaining files of images drawn from calendars, magazines, and tattoos, all traced onto the handkerchief and colored in with pen, colored pencils, wax crayons, coffee, shoe polish or felt-tip markers. Prisoners send out artwork to families and loved ones, or within the prison to fellow convicts and friends, sometimes commissioning the art in exchange for goods from the prison store.

Panos have been collected and studied from several California prisons, such as the county jail in San Antonio, but panos also flow out of prisons across Texas, Georgia, and New Mexico. In the California prison system, linen handkerchiefs are provided to many prisons for artistic purposes, the closest thing to real canvases many prisoners will every get. However, with recent security-crackdowns on coded-messages being sent by prison gangs into and out of prisons, prison officials hesitate to supply generous quantities of linens to all prisoners. In adaptation, prisoners have used their bedsheets and pillowcases.

In all cases, however, much of the imagery of Chicano prison art includes barbed wire, serpents, bannered names of girlfriends, and roses. Aztec imagery and Mexican gods are also popular among the younger generations, as well as pre-Columbian symbols, colonial religious icons, and Mexican historical and revolutionary figures. Depending on who the recipient is, the image will change. For mothers and grandmothers, images are usually religious, and depict images of Christ with a crown of thorns or the Virgin of Guadeloupe, the symbol of motherhood. For children, one illustration portrayed a father teaching his son how to ride a tricycle. For lovers, there are often roses and ribbons. For sexual fantasy, there are images of buxom, long-haired, large-breasted women with wasp waists and seducing eyes, as well as vintage cars and heavily-muscled men in old, sometimes 1950s-era clothing. Depictions of prison life include skulls, candles, prison bars, and gun-towers. Other examples include Aztec warriors, tattooed gang members, saints, pinup girls, motorcycles, teddy bears and cartoon characters, such as Minne Mouse and Mickey Mouse.

aztec warriors
the rose, typical on panos given lovers

Vatos, motorcyclists from San Antonio, sport tattooed imagery similar to Chicano prison art that is both varied and sometimes bizarre: keyholes with the words Shuttered Dreams written above likely tell the story of life stolen by jail-time, while wrist-shackles and images of the Mi Vida Loca, the motto of life on the "left side" of the law, both convey a sense of rebellion, defiance, and pride.

At the "Hourglass Prison Art Collection Show" that displayed at the South Broadway Cultural Center in Albuquerque in 2002 the public tasted several forms of prison art that previously gone unknown. One particularly memorable piece was entitled "Aztec Death," by C. Hernandez, a black-on-white portrayal of an ax-wielding skeleton in a feathered headdress. Another one, "La Virgen E MI Vida Loca," depicted a lowrider car, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Jesus Christ, various flowers, a woman wearing two masks, a bird of paradise, two cherubs and doves, and a man aiming a revolver at the viewer. Another black-on-white pano, "Freedom from Evil," a wizard encapsulated by flaming skulls accompanied a fire-breathing dragon, both of which foreshadowed in the distant background a castle. Makeshift picture frames are sometimes made from folded and woven cigarette packages.

There are also landscapes of the Mexican countryside, peacocks as symbols of masculinity, roses of beauty, and images of barrio life and gang affiliation, the hourglass and Aztec motifs. Also included are hypnotic, sometimes hallucinogenic expressions of dripping eyeballs, hypodermic needles, and dragons. Religious themes are also popular, most of which seek to express themes of sin and salvation many common to prison life.

The Atlanta Journal reported on inmate Calvin Zenga, who writes and illustrates children's stories and who recently wrote to the paper from his home at Walker State Prison in Rock Spring. One such tale of his Zenga calls "It's a Fuzzy World," which depicts creatures called "Fur-landers," described by the author as "little balls of fur about a foot tall" who live on a galactic utopia where the threat of war or violence is absent.

In California prisons, the Los Angeles Times reported that inmate-artists have melted chess pieces together, have used toothbrushes to apply tint to the envelopes, and have even dribbled Kool-Aid over their artwork to colour the background in shades of pink. However, most work is black and white, in contrast to the particularly vibrant variation of Chicano street graffiti, which often resembles in content its monochrome counterpart in prison.

Chicano prison art, or Panos, has captured the interest of even the more conservative of art-lovers, and has gained enormous exposure following its recent display across national galleries across the US. It has also captured the imagination of youth, acting as a warning sign for those at risk of entering a life of crime. The Albuquerque Journal cites one boy, who said: "These pictures really show it like it is...These guys go in (prison) one way, and they're not going to come out the same way."

6 August, 2006
LJD Writes:<

Very interesting article, but I would like to point out that prisons and jails are entirely different unlike this quote from the article: "Panos have been collected and studied from several California _prisons, such as the county jail in San Antonio" While both are "correctional institutions", prisons tend to be far worse (unless you are Martha Stewart, perhaps).

One particular distinction is the high turnover in jail, where people may be doing a 1-day stint before bail becomes available or a 5-day sentence for driving w/ suspended license after their court date. However, depending on the county, my understanding is that jail time can be up to 3 years, which may be more like a prison sentence.

Having been in jail on a 6-month sentence, I know that it is horrific for the average person who happens to get in a scrape. It is often easier than one imagines and although I rarely talk about my experience, I most certainly came out of there a more open-minded and tolerant person.

My particular method of dealing with the trauma was to get into a work detail right away, shaving off 2 of the 6 months. I was fortunate enough to have monies and bought drawing pencils and paper on commissary. Many inmates did not have this option.

Most of the inmates were there on some substance problem, as I was (alcohol). I am not a pretentious person who felt holier than the others and I spent much time talking to a) get survival tips because many of the deputies (don't call them guards) were mean b) to observe how others handle the stress of the confinement c) to work out my own problems d) although not a trained socialogist, to see the system as a whole and assess its place in society (in my opinion, overused and lacking avenues for rehabilitation)

What I had when I left there was more empathy for most and shock at some of the circumstances behind the confinement. Another thing was the "revolving door" aspect of high recividism, usually due to substance use. Also, the fact that so many were abused in many ways (or at least claimed so).
But, confounding the situation of any "true" sort of assessment was the fact that the inmates lied so much, either to impress, as a defense or merely because they refused to admit the truth to themselves.

My pencil art was important to me because I could express my frustration or whatever stress feeling I had. I also wrote much poetry/songs. I appreciated the monthly newletter authored and illustrated by the inmates, many of which were enormously creative.

Jail for me was a bizarre situation which I have no desire to repeat. However, I do feel more tolerant of those in jails/prisons and dislike hearing people denigrate inmates. There is no one type of "scummy" inmate. Also, some in there are there for reasons I feel reflect badly on society and fail to fix underlying problems.

I cam upon this article while attempting to find the Albuquerque showing of prison art named herein. As I have not lived in Abq since 1987, I looked to see what was listed under Museums in the "Venue" section of the Albuquerque Journal in this week I am visiting here. Listed under museums was "Hourglass Prison Art Collection" with address and telephone number.

Fortunately, my Dad nor I had time on a Saturday to go there. Sunday at 9:45PM I called the listed phone number and got a woman at her residence! (I was expecting some recording with the hours of operation, etc.) After verifying the number, I asked if she knew the number was listed in the paper as such.

She said yes, that it was the collection of her husband, which has not been displayed regularly for over a year because of his cancer treatment. The paper had been contacted, but had never managed to remove the information (so my call was one of many).

How sad. I appologized for calling so late and wished her husband a speedy recovery.

Anyway, it appears that this collection is quite unavailable at this time.


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