Prison Art 101: How do you make art as a prisoner?

A prison artist is a prisoner creating art while serving out their sentence at a correctional facility.

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to make art in prison, you're not alone! Prison art is an interesting and popular topic that sparks the imagination and stirs up plenty of questions about its possibility. How do prisoners produce works of art when they're unable to leave their cells or even see outside? What materials can they use? Do they sell their pieces or donate them to other artists once they get out? To learn more about how prisoner artists create their work, continue reading this article on prison art 101, as we ask an expert, California prison artist C-Note. His artwork has changed lives, saved lives, raised millions of dollars, made history in the fashion world and is the first prison artist to have his art work displayed on two billboards in 2021 and 2022, in Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world. 

What materials can I use to create art if I am an inmate with limited resources or time?

Don't let limitations hold you back. There are plenty of resources available to inmates, depending on what state and facility they're in. If you have access to paints, pens, or pencils then start there. Many prisoners don't have access to any of these things, so they make do with what's available. With little more than scraps of toilet paper, socks, soap slivers, and toothpaste tubes at their disposal, prisoners are creating entirely new worlds using just their imagination. In the image above, Joseph "Lil Man" Valencia created a lion sculpture with prison issued toilet paper and soap.

The tools are not important - it's your passion that matters most! You will find time; if not today then tomorrow or next week or next month - so don't give up! Have patience! Take care of yourself first and foremost (it is prison after all) but also be patient with yourself. Be patient with your fellow inmates, be patient with your guards/wardens/supervisors/staff - because remember we are all human beings who deserve respect and compassion. Prison is a place where we learn compassion for others while simultaneously learning self-compassion. It's very difficult to get through prison without both! So enjoy creating art while serving your sentence in prison because it will help keep you sane, inspire others around you, and keep yourself grounded during times when life feels overwhelming.

Your artwork may even be shown publicly one day by someone who believes in what you're doing or sees something good inside of themselves reflected back from your artwork! Prison is about taking responsibility for our actions, being accountable for our choices, and making amends with ourselves and others when possible. We take responsibility for our mistakes and try to learn from them. Creating art while serving time in prison helps us stay connected to ourselves so that we can better navigate our way through these tumultuous waters called prison life. As long as you are able to create something positive within yourself while incarcerated then it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about your art - whether they like it or hate it! Just know that no matter how hard prison might seem right now, eventually you'll come out of prison a better person than when you went in. And if that isn't worth celebrating then I don't know what is! :)

What are the rules regarding my artwork and what does it mean to keep my art legal?

The first thing to know is that all prisons have their own set of rules for artists, and that there are a lot of misconceptions about what can be made and sold. For example, many people think that because prisoners receive commissary money to buy personal hygiene items, they can then take it from there and use it to purchase an iPad or paint. Unfortunately, that's not how it works-prisoners cannot use commissary money to buy anything other than toothpaste, ramen soups, freeze dried coffee, and a few other items ...

It's best to consult with your loved one before getting too invested in creating specific pieces. However, if your loved one has a good relationship with his/her prison staff, it might be possible to find out exactly what he/she needs in order to make their artwork legal.

A good way to start is by asking questions like "How much paper do I send? What kind of paper should I send? Can I send any type of pen? Is there anything else I should know about sending paper or pens into prison? You'll also want to research your state laws regarding prison art; each state has its own set of laws regarding these matters. Also keep in mind that while most prisons allow inmates to sell their artwork, some may limit how much work they can produce per month or year.

There may also be limits on how much they can earn off of their work. Check with your loved one's prison directly to see what rules apply at his/her facility. You'll also want to check online for information about prison art-related websites and organizations, such as Arts Behind Bars, which will help answer any further questions you may have!

My prison cell art gallery in the above image went against the prison rules. Our prison system does not permit images on the back wall of our prison cells. Despite that fact, the guards didn't fully enforce it against me, and for months, all races of prisoners would stop by to view the exhibition.

Being an artist helps me cope with being locked up, but what happens if my art reaches others outside of prison walls?

This one is tricky. On one hand, it's great to know that your work can reach people who care about you. Your loved ones know that your art is helping and encouraging you, but will also want to see it come to fruition on a public level-and that's where things get difficult for incarcerated artists.

Although the above image is of my first Billboard Art exhibition, of my Graphite on paper Incarceration Nation, America's Premier artwork on mass incarceration, prisoners are generally allowed access to paper and pencil, so creating drawings or paintings on them isn't hard-but creating physical pieces of art can be tricky in prison.

Until recently, most prisons have banned photos in general due to their ability to potentially be used as identification tools by other prisoners. So how do you create publicly viewable artwork if there are no cameras or photos permitted inside prison walls?

That's a question of who do you trust? Because you will have to trust somebody in the free world to safeguard your art like their life depended on it. However, I'm sure that more prisons will allow photography soon. In fact, there was an exhibition at San Quentin Prison called Inside Out which featured photographs taken by inmates within San Quentin itself. It's definitely something to keep an eye out for! If anyone has any advice on how they got around these obstacles, please write to me, and let me know.

This might seem like a silly question, but what happens when you're released? The first thing I'd like to say is that everyone has different release dates and different circumstances. Some may serve only half of their sentence while others may serve almost all of it before being released, while others will never see the light of day.

There are many factors involved with determining someone's release date; however, there are some commonalities between all releases. First off, many prisoners have jobs while serving time and those jobs include making license plates or repairing shoes among other things, and most correctional facilities will reduce time off of the prisoners sentence.

Once released, success as an artist varies. Most struggle being an artist in the free world, while others are thriving, Jesse Krimes, Mr. Wash, and Anna Delvey all come to mind with huge exhibitions. I have been lending my voice to an Art For Justice Fund initiative through the Justice Arts Coalition of coming up with a set of principles to protect the vulnerability of these prisoner artists.


I hope that I have given you some insights into prison artists, and maybe even inspired someone to start creating their own artistic creations. We may not be able to directly relate to being in prison, but we can relate to someone who wants to create something and use it in ways that are amazing.

I encourage all of my readership to view prisons differently. While there are few benefits when it comes down to just being out of society, there is something positive that comes from allowing inmates an outlet for their expression, especially if they want to go back into society and express themselves responsibly after release. In the end, we aren't sure what type of prisons we will live or work in once our working days come to an end inside..

Maybe we will need to find prison artwork as part of a rehabilitation program. Maybe we will need prison artwork because prisons need some form of decoration in order to keep them safe for those who reside within them. I've even heard, prison artwork isn't something that anyone should ever enjoy seeing, but rather is an important part of life and our future needs.

Only time will tell how important prison artwork really is, so let us never forget about its importance now while it still holds weight with us today, as a positive rehabilitative force for good.