What counts as art? As our own societies aim to create more inclusive and sustainable connections, our gazes are slowly but surely being reset, and new voices are finding their way into the canon. Prison art is one of these exciting new voices that have been gaining real interest in recent years. The graffiti found on the walls of San Lucas Prison has a powerful human story to tell.
Isla San Lucas: Stories About the Famous Graffiti Art
A dungeon, late at night. The jingling of the keys announced our transfer to the San Lucas Prison, located in the Gulf of Nicoya, on the island of the same name. Some of my fellow inmates begged not to be taken here. Surprised by their plea I asked: “Is there really a more inhuman and horrifying place than this? ”I would discover the answer a few days later. Indeed, San Lucas was such a terrible place, that the mere memory makes you relive the suffering.
José León Sánchez, La Isla de los Hombres Solos, 1968
Around 1950, a group of people broke into the Basílica de Los Ángeles. They killed a guard, destroyed a venerated statue of the Virgin Mary, and stole the church jewels. Less than a month later, José León Sánchez was asked to take some tin cans to a specific location in Hatillo by his girlfriend’s father, Don Roberto. Sánchez was unaware that these cans contained the stolen jewels, which sadly got him involved. When Don Roberto was caught and faced prison time, Sánchez took the blame out of love for the man’s daughter. He was arrested at the age of 19 and would spend the following 30 years at the Devil’s Island for a crime of which he would eventually be absolved of in 1998.
Today, Sánchez is known as the author of The Lonely Men’s Island, a gruesome yet captivating story of life at the men’s prison on the Isla San Lucas in the Gulf of Nicoya, Costa Rica. The book has been translated into 25 languages and was released as a movie in Mexico.
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San Lucas Prison is often compared to the more famous Alcatraz, but beyond the fact that they were located on an island and aimed to incarcerate some of the country’s worst criminals, these prisons have nothing in common. In reality, San Lucas allowed far more monstrous acts to transpire. From its founding under dictator Tomás Guardia Gutiérrez in 1873 until its eventual closing in 1991, the prison became synonymous with terror, torture, and death.
Now considered a cultural heritage site and recently declared a national park, the island can be visited on a tour. A 40-minute boat ride from Puntarenas will take you to the old torture chambers, prison cells, holes in the ground that functioned as isolation chambers, the church, and sewage.
To those of us fascinated by Dark Tourism, it probably seems normal that the island is a cultural site today. But there was a brief period when the working prison itself functioned as something of a tourist attraction. Beltrán Cortés was one of the island’s most famous prisoners. He was convicted of first-degree murder after he shot and killed two doctors whom he blamed for botching up his surgery. Of the 32 years he was imprisoned, several were spent on display in a two-square-meter cage for visitors to see.
While all prisoners were treated dreadfully, Cortés received special attention due to the nature of his crime. Dr. Ricardo Moreno Cañas and Dr. Carlos Echandi, the two doctors Cortés shot, were well respected and highly appraised surgeons. Moreno, educated at the University of Geneva, was especially celebrated for his ingenuity. Sánchez describes how the government built the small, metal construct designed to keep the man hunched and contorted until eventually, he would lose the ability to walk. It wasn’t until president Otilio Ulate Blanco paid a visit to the island, that this practice was discontinued, and Cortés was placed with the other prisoners.
Of course, prison life was still something to be terrified of, and the most sadistic guards would continuously invent more and more creative ways to torture, punish, or even kill prisoners. José León Sánche described this in his famous work:
In the following three years, Colonel Venancio would introduce a new way to punish the men in case they hurt a fellow inmate, tried to escape, or threatened the life of a guard. […] Mamita (Mamita Juana – one of the most sadistic guards), hardened by thirty years of prison, would push prisoners into the sea. Air bubbles would surface … A shark would be waiting. The quiet sea slowly turned red.
The Expression of San Lucas’ Prison Inmates
“There was a time when drawing and writing were not separated for you. We draw before we are taught,” cartoonist Lynda Barry reminds us in Making Comics. While not referencing art and prison life as such, Barry does observe that artistic expression is innate. Expressing ourselves through images, words, and any means possible, is key to our personal development, our desire to communicate, and the need to show that “we were here.”
The research into prison art is a relatively young discipline and expansive works cataloging its styles and iconography are few and far between. However, some notable efforts have already been made. The draw of this unique form of outsider art has inspired a number of exhibitions such as The Drawing Center’s The Pencil is a Key, and MoMa’s Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration. For the latter, Nicole R. Fleetwood, professor of American studies and art history at Rutgers University, provided her expertise as a guest curator. In her book by the same name, Dr Fleetwood coined the phrase carceral aesthetics, referring to art formed by strict confinement with limited access to conventional art supplies. This lack of supplies would drive San Lucas’ inmates to extremes, and in some cases, even blood is used to complete the graffiti designed to be more visually potent.
Sexuality and the Most Primal Human Experiences
In his book, Sánchez explores the themes he describes as moral degeneration, including how the younger, more feminine men served as prostitutes to fulfill the needs of fellow inmates. At times, prostitution was voluntary and to the convicts’ mutual benefit. Other times, the strong would prey on the weak. Rape or claiming mastership over a fellow inmate was not uncommon. According to Jonathan Schwartz’s research in the documentary Turned Out: Sexual Assault Behind Bars, the act of physical domination or indeed taking a “wife” in an all-male prison, is an irrefutable symbol of power and part of, what Schwartz referred to as the hyper-masculinist environment.
Prison sexuality for men has been a subject of psychological and sociological research since the 1930s. City lawyer Kate Johns has described same-sex experiences in prison as ‘gay for the stay’, with inmates themselves attributing their shift in carnal desires as purely situational. Since heterosexual relations were not possible, they would engage in sexual activities with fellow inmates in order to answer a need for more intense physical release.
Human sexuality is expressed on every inch of the San Lucas prison’s walls. Some of the graffiti showing explicit or sexual content appears to be a memory of relations had in the past with couples being displayed in a variety of positions. Others served more as visual stimulation and pornographic imagery.
Freedom and Rebellion In Image and Text
While graffiti tinged with sexuality is prevalent, a yearning for freedom, a sense of rebellion, and even irony are also found. To understand how an oppressive environment can still yield such unexpected expressions, we must look no further than our bookcase. Our favorite fictional worlds are often dystopian. Novels such as Brave New Word, 1984, and The Handmaid’s Tale, paint a grim pseudo-reality that is frequently uncomfortably close to our own.
1984 famously introduced the oppressive method of Newspeak, a language robbed of any reference to freedom, identity, and self-expression. Devised to banish the action and sentiment this terminology represents, Newspeak was devised as a type of mental prison. This method proves to be flawed, as the desire for freedom precedes the word, and no linguistic or conceptual purification would take the impulse away.
At San Lucas, freedom and self-expression are crushed under an intensely sadistic system. But this has done nothing to prevent art and even hope from finding a way. While all of the graffiti shows prisoners stubbornly finding a way to coexist with the inhumane, some of them are more expressive in their depth and casual playfulness. They joke, they write notes, compose poems, chalk anarchy symbols, reference pop culture and entertainment, and cling to all that makes them who they are.
While a restriction of physical freedom is what incarceration is all about, it has been suggested that the expression of the concept of freedom can be part of effective rehabilitation and the eventual reintegration in society. Since the inmates of San Lucas Prison’s expressed themselves through the medium graffiti, it gives their art an anonymous and urban vibe, as if even the thought of freedom is illegal. But researchers at the Jagiellonian University of Kraków, Poland, had set out to remove that stigma through art. The artistic application of freedom was explored in the so-called Labyrinth of Freedom Project, where prisoners were invited to express their comments on freedom. The idea was to prove that art can offer a type of freedom that will persist beyond the prison bars.
Jailhouse Jesus, Evil and Spirituality
Next to sex, rebellion, and indeed art, religion too can be integral to prison life. According to research by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the prisoners who could find support and guidance in their faith, show an increased ability to adjust. While a certain percentage of prisoners will already be religious as they enter the system and consequently delve more deeply into their faith, others have been found to convert. The study goes on to say that inmates who become active practitioners in prison experience a greater sense of personal identity and have been shown to cope better with feelings of guilt and remorse.
Costa Rica was, and to some degree, still is a profoundly Catholic country. This is hardly surprising considering the nature of Sanchez’s crime and its seemingly disproportionate punishment. At San Lucas, various religious graffiti can be found. The majority of them are frontal depictions of Jesus Christ, and distinct references to the evil of the place they found themselves in.
Religious themes are popular in all forms of prison art and can best be observed in the most stunning exhibitions on artistic expression behind bars, Paños Chicanos. The collection was started by the graphic designer, comic book writer, silkscreen artist, and documentary filmmaker Reno Leplat-Torti Reno Leplat-Torti. It features over 200 handkerchiefs carrying a plethora of imagery. Depictions include religious imagery, references to pop culture, and unique creative outbursts.
The medium of handkerchiefs also indicates an ingenuity for artistic release, much like in San Lucas’ graffiti. The availability of pens, wax, and coffee has allowed for more sophisticated artwork. The US-based inmates, so the exhibition website states, used these little portable paintings for more than just artistic relief and leveraged them as a way to communicate with family, friends, or even gangs in the outside world. But no matter its true purpose, the images are raw and acutely expressive.
The Graffiti of San Lucas Prison as a Natural Human Impulse
San Lucas Prison has a dark history where, quite contradictory, fundamental expressions of sex, spirituality, entertainment, and freedom can be found in its expressive graffiti. Inmates used whatever they could find, even their own blood, to offer themselves some release, find a level of entertainment, and consciously communicate to future generations who’d be gazing at the walls. We draw before we are taught to and producing an image, a poem, a joke, is an impulse even the notorious prison couldn’t crush. And so, it seems that even when torture is inflicted, fear is made king, and humanity is robbed, art is, and always will be, inevitable.