Prison Artwork: From Hobby to Hot Commodity

Prison artists at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women

This is an article on Prison artists eminently featured in Prison art magazines and the prominent sales of Prison artwork, both online and offline through well-known galleries and museums.

Prison art has always been an important way for prisoners to express themselves and relieve stress, but it has recently been gaining notoriety in the art world as well. Prison artwork includes drawings, paintings, sculptures, and even poetry written by prisoners who have made the most of their time behind bars with creativity and self-expression. Prison artwork has been donated, submitted for art contests, is in magazines, and books, and has been shown in galleries, and museums. The art merits recognition and the artists must be compensated just like other artists.

Prison Artists

Prison artwork, also referred to as prison art, can now be purchased from a variety of sources. Prison art magazines and prison art galleries both offer a wide selection of works for sale by artists behind bars. As more prisons are attempting to provide classes designed specifically to develop inmates' artistic skills and teach them how to sell their creations it is still not fully available. Art lovers seeking an original piece or a collector's item do not have the option to purchase the art, and this makes Prison art more valuable. This growth in interest is largely attributed to a number of well-known prison artists who have made names for themselves while incarcerated. The prison artwork interest has grown over recent years and has been featured in books, documentaries, and movies. One such book is Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood. The book received a MacArthur Fellow National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. Here are some of these famous prison artists:

Charles Bronson (1952 - ) A bare-knuckle boxer, his promoter changed his name to Charles Bronson after the American actor. Known as a violent inmate, this resulted in him receiving a life sentence. He's been held at three special psychiatric hospitals. As an outsider artist, Bronson's paintings of prison and psychiatric hospital life have been publicly exhibited and won him multiple awards.

Ai Weiwei (1957 - ) was arrested by security agents at Beijing's international airport, and was taken by plainclothes officers who covered his head with a black hood, and drove him to a secret location. He endured intense psychological pressure. After 81 days in detention, he was released. In 2014, his exhibition @Large on Alcatraz took place in the notorious prison turned National Park. Its themes of liberty and justice, personal responsibility, freedom of expression, and human rights were seen throughout the exhibition. He curated the work while on house arrest in China.

Donald "C-Note" Hooker (1965 - ) was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department for displaying a knife to keep a homeless person from following him in downtown Los Angeles's skid row. He received a sentence of 35-years-to-life under California's draconian Three Strikes law. A poet, playwright, performing artist, award-winning visual artist, and the King of Prison Hip Hop, his works have either been exhibited, recited, performed, or sold, from Alcatraz to Berlin. C-Note has donated artwork to fundraising for such organizations as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Unlock Tomorrow which provides services to young people who have been discarded by society, it provides mentorship which brings aspiration to juveniles in detention centers and upon their release. His work has changed lives, saved lives, raised millions of dollars, made history in the fashion world, and is the first prison artist to have his artwork displayed on two billboards in 2021 and 2022, in Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world.

Alfredo Martinez (1968 - ) was arrested and sentenced to three years for selling forged Basquiat drawings. While incarcerated, he was prolific in his work. He began making sardonic drawings that spoke to his situation and the follies of the contemporary art world.

While imprisoned, Martinez had works sell for several thousands of dollars, and had solo shows in New York and Paris, but this did not endear him to prison officials. In 2022, Martinez curated a group exhibition featuring a collection of artists, including the works of Anna Sorokin. Sorokin, a Russian-born German, pretended to be a wealthy German heiress under the name Anna Delvey. In 2017, she was arrested for defrauding major financial institutions, and wealthy elites in the U.S.. Sorokin is currently in the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pending deportation. Netflix developed a television adaptation of her story titled Inventing Anna, which was released in 2022.

None of the five, 22-inch-by-30-inch, pencil and acrylic drawings attributed to Sorokin were actually done by her. They were reproductions of drawings she made while incarcerated. They were created by Martinez using his special "expertise."

Jesse Krimes (1982 - ) was sent to prison for cocaine possession and subsequently served five years of a six-year sentence. During his time he devised a way to transfer photos from newspapers and magazines onto soap using hair gel. He cut the bars into works of art and shipped them discreetly out of prison. His work Apokaluptein:16389067, an ode to Dante's Inferno has been exhibited widely.

Prison Art Magazines

Most prisons in North America have an art program, some of which are run by trained art instructors and some of which aren't. The Prison magazine is used by many institutions as a means of showcasing prison artwork-often done on an amateur basis-and provides exposure for inmates who otherwise wouldn't get much. Just being in a prison art magazine gives you kind of a leg up, says Stephen King, director of programs at Moore College of Art & Design. There is demand for their work-they just don't know it yet. People look at prison art as bad or ugly or not very good, he says. But we need to look past that. Prisoners tend to be extremely talented, but they may not have had access to good materials before or opportunities for instruction; once they do, there's no telling what they can create. When people talk about prison art, he adds, it's always about 'prison artists.' And that term does apply because these guys are artists. But if all prisoners were artists by nature (or nurture), then all prisoners would be exhibiting in galleries and museums. They're not; so something else must be going on here. Here are some Prison art magazines, both in print and online:

Ink From The Pen Magazine is a print publication dedicated to bringing Art from the other side of the razor wire to all of us on the other side.

Designed Conviction is a Quarterly print Magazine aimed at highlighting artistic incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. It is a platform for the incarcerated, as well as ex-felons to put their artistry in all forms out there.

Darealprisonart Magazine is an online publication that combines the politics of prisons, with prison art.

State Vs Us Magazine is a print magazine that provides a unique outlet by highlighting high profile cases, wrongful convictions, and speaking up against corruption; while showcasing success stories of individuals who have made it out of prison to the streets of success.

Prison Art Work

C-Note's "Untitled 34 (2018)"

Prison artwork has become a popular hobby for inmates throughout America. Once viewed only as a symbol of devotion to family and friends, Prison art is now for sale online through a variety of well-known galleries and museums. Prison art often depicts fond memories from childhood or scenic landscapes not seen from behind bars. With rare exceptions, prison artists work with mediums such as oil paints and watercolors, both of which require plenty of skill and patience. Their paintings are signed on the bottom left corners in colorful handwritten fonts that add another element of authenticity. They have also drawn the attention of critics who can appreciate the unique artistic styles afforded by life behind bars.

Prison Art Drawings

C-Note's "Untitled 74"

Prison art is sometimes used as a hobby by prison inmates, and many find themselves talented enough that they decide to turn their skills into a profitable endeavor. But unlike other industries, where people can hone their skills at work or school, in prison, there are no opportunities for an inmate to practice and develop their talent. The only way prisoners can learn how to be better artists is if they already have natural artistic talent and take it upon themselves (with little encouragement from guards) to pursue painting as a hobby while incarcerated. Although not every prison offers arts programs, some prisons do have limited opportunities for inmates that may wish to use art as part of a rehabilitation program. Inmates who participate in prison art programs usually earn a small stipend for their efforts. In addition to being able to sell artwork created behind bars, some prisons also offer classes so inmates can improve their skills before being released back into society. Prison artwork is often sold online through auction sites such as eBay or through galleries such as Nucleus Gallery's Prison Life Art Show held annually in Los Angeles. Prison artwork has become so popular that even major museums now feature prison artwork on display alongside traditional works of fine art. Some prisons have entire wings dedicated to displaying prison artwork, with each prisoner having his own cell where he can create his own masterpieces.

Prison Art Tattoos

If you're interested in collecting prison artwork, there are few better ways to start than by getting a prison tattoo. Once something of clandestine activity, prison tattoos are now sold openly in shops and online galleries-many of which offer international shipping. Prison art tattoos make excellent display pieces for your home or office and can be fairly affordable depending on their size. If you're really serious about getting a piece of prisoner art, plan ahead-it may take some time to find an artist that matches your vision. Also, keep in mind that state laws might prohibit you from having tattooed prisoners' artwork anywhere on your body other than hidden places like your lower back or thigh. You can still frame them if you really want them! However, keep in mind that no matter how cool they look as framed pieces of prison art, they were never meant to be seen through the glass.

Ever since the tough-on-crime laws of the 1990s, and every Rapper rapped about being a drug dealer, this lifestyle, and the thug culture that came along with the criminal lifestyle, led to generations of youth adorning their bodies in Tattoos, just like the prison photos that were sent home by their fathers, uncle's, brothers, or cousins. Robert Pho was a prisoner who became a prisoner tattooist, and since his release from prison has successfully transformed his prison hustle into a lucrative Nationwide tattoo business, with tattoo parlors in Brooklyn, Honolulu, SoCal, and Las Vegas, including a location inside the Caesars Palace.

Prison tattoos aren't indestructible! They're made with standard prison equipment, so any quality sharp object could damage it over time. This is why we suggest hanging your prison artwork only when it's being displayed. And when it comes down to framing these unique works of art, remember to use museum-quality materials; not all frames are created equal.

Prison Art for Sale

C-Note's "Untitled 71"

Did you know that some of today's hottest artists got their start in prison? Whether a budding artist or just a connoisseur, there are now plenty of ways to buy prison artwork, whether online or at local galleries. Most sellers market their artwork through arts and crafts fairs, flea markets, and even some prisons; others use websites like Etsy, eBay, and Darealprisonart. In fact, online sales are so popular that it's now easier than ever for people on both sides of the bars-inmates looking for money (or stamps) and those with money looking for art-to connect. And while most inmates draw portraits of landscapes, some specialize in more obscure specialties like kite-making. It may seem odd that art made by criminals is selling for hundreds or thousands of dollars, but don't be surprised if you see handmade by an inmate printed on more than one piece of merchandise soon. The beauty of prison artwork is not only its unique style but also its ability to get people talking about an important issue. What do you think about buying prisoner artwork?

Prison Art Auction

C-Note's artwork was auctioned at the Unlock Tomorrow art auction Lot #18, Untitled 19, and Lot #19, Snack Time (Homage To Michelle Obama)

In 2021 at Art Basel in Miami, American Prisoner Ross Ulbricht's debut NFT, "Perspective," Graphite on Paper sold for $6.2M at Auction. In 2022, Con-artist Anna Sorokin, aka Anna Delvey of Inventing Anna fame, from her ICE detention cell, sold $500,000 in Prison art prints.

With prices like these, it seems only natural that prisons would have an art program. For many prisoners, working on art is just another way to pass time; but others see their work as more than just something to do. In fact, some believe they are creating masterpieces worth millions (or billions) of dollars. But how much does Prison art really sell for? Are there any truly valuable pieces out there? What makes a piece valuable anyway? And what does prison art even mean? Read on to find out more about Prison artists and their work... The market for prison art is strong. When you hear prison art, you might think of crude sketches made in jest, or perhaps hand-drawn pictures with words or symbols scrawled over them. You might also imagine that since most inmates aren't wealthy, their artwork must not be worth very much either. But today's market isn't necessarily limited to amateurish drawings done behind bars; instead, it includes some surprisingly professional work created by skilled artists who were incarcerated long ago. If you think someone could make money selling their work from behind bars, then why wouldn't everyone do it? After all, no one wants to spend 20 years making license plates!

Prison Art Shows

If there's a single place where you can buy prison artwork, it's at a prison art show. Prison art shows are usually organized by outside groups like nonprofit foundations and charities; some include as many as 100 artists from correctional facilities around a particular state or region. There is no shortage of prisoner art shows to attend in America-more than 50 take place every year, the largest being Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) run by the University of Michigan. And while they aren't open exclusively to artists behind bars, they can be an easy way for inmates to share their work with outsiders, and provide a rare connection with those who have never been incarcerated. The sales proceeds go back into charitable programs run by non-profit organizations that support prisoners and their families, making these events worthwhile even if you don't plan on buying anything. The benefits go both ways too: according to inmate-artists interviewed for Art Behind Bars, being able to show off their skills gives them a boost of confidence. Inmates also reported that working on pieces helps them deal with anger issues and feel better about themselves when reentering society after release.

Henry David Potwin found his calling in Prison art. In 1994 he was sentenced to federal prison which he describes as the most cathartic event in his life. "This black sense of loss became a lens that focused my innate creative drive to crystalline clarity. During that period of my life I seized the opportunity to light a spark in the minds of a considerable number of disenfranchised individuals as an art teacher. I gave them encouragement and the opportunity to discover their latent talents .Their pride of accomplishment was my reward as well." Today, Potwin is a successful artist who has had pieces featured at galleries and museums around America.

Prison Art Museums

Alcatraz Art Escape Prison Art Exhibit at Alcatraz East Crime Museum curated by Prison Art Touching Hearts (PATH).

One of the best ways to profit from art is by participating in a prison art exhibition. Many museums and galleries, particularly in New York City, are regularly showing pieces created by inmates. There are also several museum-like locations such as Sing Sing Prison in New York State, where inmates' work is on permanent display. While your business won't make millions of dollars selling paintings done by incarcerated people, you can certainly turn a small profit while helping out local artists who have been disadvantaged by their incarceration status. Even better, prison artwork can serve as an excellent medium for social commentary and self-expression. These works often provide a unique perspective that isn't found in any other type of art. This kind of creativity is highly valued by collectors, so if you decide to start buying and selling these pieces, don't be surprised if they quickly become hot commodities!

Prison Art Gallery

Prison Cell Art Gallery

America is home to over 2 million prisoners, which means there are tens of thousands of unlikely artists behind bars. In recent years, galleries across America have increasingly begun incorporating these works into their spaces, displaying artwork created by inmates alongside that of outside artists, such as MoMA PS1 in New York City, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut, Toe River Arts's Spruce Pine Gallery in North Carolina, and many more.

A prison art gallery is defined as a gallery where work produced by inmates at a penal institution is showcased for sale or exhibition. Sales from prison art fund arts and educational programs within prison facilities and some state governments in America require such sales as a condition of funding for arts education programs within penal institutions. The creation of prison art has been documented since around 1825 when convicts on ships transporting them to Australia began painting on canvas using materials they had available. The history of prisoner-produced artwork dates back even further than that; records indicate that prisoners were creating artwork in jails as early as 1780.

Today's inmate-artists range from professional painters and sculptors to those who create simple drawings with pencils or crayons while serving time for non-violent crimes. Many prisons allow inmates access to paints, brushes, markers, and other supplies so they can create original pieces while others offer courses in artistic mediums such as painting, sculpture, and drawing. Some incarcerated individuals choose to simply draw or paint recreationally during their incarceration, without any intention of selling their creations. If you want to assist a prisoner artist with their art supplies, then it's always useful to know what is authorized or not, and reading, "Helpful tips for buying art supplies for a loved one serving a prison sentence," can be invaluable.

Prisoners' artwork tends to fall into one of three categories: realistic portraits and landscapes, abstract expressionism, and surrealism. Realistic portraits often depict family members (most commonly children), friends, or celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Jesus Christ, and John Lennon. The most common subjects for abstract expressionist paintings are symbols of freedom like birds, butterflies, and airplanes along with religious imagery like crosses, angels, and crucifixes.


Prison artwork has been donated, submitted for art contests, in magazines, books, and has been shown in galleries, and museums. Prison artwork has gone from a hobby for some, to a hot commodity for others, as Prison art and the artists who are creating these rare inaccessible works of art are growing in fame and notoriety. For art collectors and investors, it was the graffiti inside the prisons which gave rise to the Graffiti Art movement in the streets of America. This in turn led to the birth of Street art, the legalized form of graffiti. Artists such as the UK's Banksy, and African American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who enjoy art sales in the millions, have their artistic roots tracing back to American Prison Art.