Incredible Prison Art: What a Confined Artist Created with Only Prison Materials

Jesse Krimes, a 31-year old artist who had to serve a 70-month jail sentence for the possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, found the time in jail particularly hard as he had no one to talk to or no means to express himself artistically as he was once able to. The only way to alleviate the solitude and fight off the pangs of depression was by working at a massive work of art finding whatever was on hand: sheets, hair gel, plastic spoons, toilet paper, but especially magazines from which he would clip a few images making a bit of collage art as he went. The result was a breath-taking massive mural masterpiece that Krimes created somewhat incognito, as he hid the materials used from the guards who would have otherwise confiscated them.


Anyway, his relation to the guards and the other inmates was actually improved by the assertion of his artist identity. In a phone interview given to Slate, Krimes said that his art allowed him to attract sympathizers on both sides of rival gangs, thus avoiding violence himself. “They called me the independent”, he said. “Artwork facilitated conversation. And it humanized me to some of the guards. They saw me not as an inmate but as a person”. The fellow inmates, most of whom were dangerous criminals, started to commission portraits and to pay him in jailhouse currency. Still, caution was needed when procuring the required materials for the art that provided him with the much-needed escape from his confinement. If Krimes somehow managed to get all the raw things he needed inside to complete his piece of incredible prison art, a bigger problem was how to get the work out, once the day of his release was approaching. In order to achieve this, he mailed pieces of the mural to his girlfriend outside, package after package. Of course, having gained the guard’s trust surely helped him get away with it.


Once he got home himself, Krimes already had scored a job that was waiting for him at the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, where his boss already reserved a large office space for him to work on his mural and eventually display it. The work’s name is derived from the Greek word for apocalypse and the author says that the profoundly dehumanizing prison experience is the main inspiration behind it. It’s easy to believe that prison can demoralize and dehumanize anyone, but somehow, seeing this piece of incredible prison art and knowing where it originated just makes it all more touching.


To create it, Krimes juxtaposed images of travel images in the New York times with images of man-made disasters occurring in the same areas advertised as the ideal get-away. The superimposition is meant to accentuate the feeling of desertedness and danger and fragility: nothing beautiful is able to last under the threat of man-made violence.


The artist described his works from the pre-prison period as being sculptural, three-dimensional and highly expressive, while his incredible prison art featured here gradually became clustered and closed, two-dimensional, obsessive, compulsive and darker. Working in that environment and feeling isolated and hopeless for 5 years also produced a revelation of sorts in the artist: he intends to work not only for further developing the style he found for himself while in prison, but also to help other convicted criminals practice art and maintain a connection to the outside world. He has a project in mind that would “give a face to the faceless” and help tell the stories of inmates in creative ways. If the project would be done, the resulting images would be projected onto a museum just outside the prison, so the inmates could actually glimpse images of themselves on the opposing building. And if we allow ourselves to feel the feeling of the mural pictured here, we can maybe understand how that would be like.


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