Chicano Prison Art
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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