A dimly-lit photo of a man behind bars.

Prison art is nothing new. What is new is that it is now receiving national recognition.
Image: Shutterstock


Jesse Krimes is a name almost too perfect for this story. Arrested in 2009 on drug charges, he was sentenced to 70 months in prison. While he only served 55 months of that, he put that time to use. Good use? Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder.

He used local newspapers and bars of soap to make little portraits of other criminals, transferring the portraits onto whittled tabs of soap. Then he’d buy decks of cards in the prison commissary, cut a hole in the deck, and secrete the miniature portraits there to mail them out to a friend. Once in a while, one was confiscated, but Krimes never got in trouble for them.

In his first year, a time when he spent 23 hours out of every day in his cell, Krimes made and smuggled out more than 300 portraits, using mugshots and celebrity snaps from the Lancaster newspaper. He also sketched about 50 portraits, mostly of other inmates. The prisoners who received those sent most of them to their own families. They seemed to appreciate Krimes’ skill.

When he wasn’t working on the soap portraits, he had a larger work in the making. A multi-panel mural made on white prison bed sheets, a collage of photos from newspapers and magazines, transferred onto sheets with hair gel and a plastic spoon, and augmented with his own drawings of heaven, hell, and current events. The mural he made was eventually confiscated while he was in federal prison at Fairton, N.J. But on his release, he immediately set about recreating the work, and now it is the centerpiece of his show.

Krimes’ exhibition which he titled “Marking Time in America: The Prison Works (2009-2013)” features the complete set of soap portraits and their playing card cases (the set as a whole is titled “Purgatory” and is priced at $50,000). The 39-panel mural, which he titled “Apokaluptein: 16389067” after his prison number, features a series of blown-up prints of other newsprint-bed sheet transfers he did. The exhibit is on display at the Burning in Water gallery and is partnered with a prison-reform nonprofit. It runs through September 24.