Abby Gwin: Behind Bars

Fall, 2017 Art Series: Behind Bars (Mixed Media). Click on the images to see a larger version.

Convicted. Surrounded by linoleum tiles, white concrete walls, tarnished silver sinks, and the overwhelming lack of privacy. Given a measly jump suit, rubber thongs, a beard-scruff blanket, and a number, freedom leaves with each clink and clang. Welcome home.

As hours passed, days drag.

Sleeping has become tedious. Eating is a feat. Pacing hasn’t gained you any ground. All you have is blankness.

Your hands begin to fidget with anticipation. A snag in the sheet turns into a rip, which turns to a hole accompanied by a long braided strand. Others find requiem in sculpting soap, sketching the image of their lovers, or playing games with other inmates.

However, for the long-term time-sharers nothingness turns into innovation. Found scraps and everyday household objects are viewed as pieces to an inventive or dangerous puzzle. Prison-style tattoo guns are a prime example of this.

Tattoos resemble an inmate’s status, wealth, toughness, religion, possible gang affiliation or murders committed. With nothing but time to kill, the body is looked at as a human canvas; experimenting with different tattoo styles and methods of applying ink.

While serving time in prison, inmates look for methods of “hustle” as a means of staying above the general population either in material matter or reputation. A popular method of “hustle” comes from the making and distributing of homemade tattoo machines.

Common materials used are: toothbrushes, plastic silverware, shoelace, strips of bed sheet, tape, pens, MP3 motors, telephone parts, found wire, buttons, paper clips, and other miscellaneous scavenged/traded objects. Much of the supplies are purchased through commissary or made out of clothing/items pre-assigned to inmates.

Famed tattoo artist Scott Campbell states, “I like the idea that inspiration can come from limitations.”

Many tattoo guns are bought either with actual money, contraband, or a variety of commissary items. Depending on the quality of the machine/tattoos it produces, the dollar amount fluctuates. Many styles of tattoo guns are passed down through gang membership within a prison. The better the machine the better the reputation.

This value system reflects a skewed version of everyday society where the basis runs on material product and earned respect.

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