I’ve been experiencing a dry spell lately for art. After witnessing the 3 to 5-hr wait for the Museum of Feelings, I just lost the desire to check out more cool exhibitions. It’s like the feeling you get when you come across a newly hyped restaurant with a 2-hr wait and no reservations accepted. Like, seriously? Anyway, I decided to end the spell with a nice little stroll through Chelsea and the High Line, hoping for a new spark of inspiration. We bounced around a few galleries and opening receptions, but only one stood out: the “Hatched in Prison” exhibition by Gil Batle showing at the Ricco Maresca Gallery.
Gil Batle, a San Franciscan native, spent two decades in California prisons for fraud and forgery. His natural artistic skills won him protection from violence in return for tattoos, portraits and other requests from inmates. After his release, he moved to the Philippines where he continues his incredible talent to re-tell the stories of and document life behind bars through ostrich egg carvings – both to reveal and cope with tragedies in confinement. As Batle describes, “I actually have to go back (mentally) to prison to capture that feel of being inside that place.. Its a relief of gratitude when I look up from the egg and Im reminded that… Im not in there anymore..”
As you walk into the exhibition, multiple eggs are lined up for view under glass displays – each telling a story of its own, glowing underneath the display lights. The gallery provides magnifying glasses to fully observe and appreciate the details. And, believe me, you’re going to want to look more closely.
The attention to detail and meticulous carving is literally jaw-dropping! You can be staring at the same egg for a full 15 minutes and still miss a detail. Gil Batle’s elaborate designs serve to tell a story from inside. It’s clear that he has given each egg so much thought to serve justice to all inmates involved. And, to preserve and respect their privacy, he has also chosen to change the names in all his stories.
Not all of his eggs were shown at the exhibition, but a few of his stories can be found below.
There is nothing more humiliating and demeaning than the “cavity check”.. To be told to “squat and cough” so the guards can look up your anal cavity to make sure you aren’t hiding any contraband up there.. “Lift em’ up” is a guards’ instruction to lift up your nut sack to make sure your not hiding anything under there either. This is done during your intake,.. before you enter the yard if a suspected riot is to occur… always after a visit… always during random cell raids… or some say whenever a guard just wants to mess with you.. Even some of the hardest convicts get irritated when they have to go though this routine. One of the images that I’ll never forget was on the yard in SQ.. my first term..
I saw a small group of Nortenos escorting one of their own to the toilet.. then surrounding him (facing outwards) as he sat there doing his business in the middle of that yard.. I was told that it was a security measure to protect him from the Surenos (rival gang).. Sitting on the toilet was the best time to attack when he’s most vulnerable .Also on this egg, there is a hand picking up a bar of soap.. Some use the term “dropping the soap”.. as a joke.. Well, until you’ve been naked in a shower room with a bunch of naked convicts and you drop your soap bar… there is nothing funny about that.. Dont pick it up.. leave it there.. You bending down exposing your ass is like in invitation. Most of those men havent had sex in a long time.. Then, there are also the Trannys.. (transvestites) They dont mind dropping the soap, cavity checks or prancing around naked in their cells.”
I think we’ve all heard a tale or two about prison and have dismissed them as jokes or myths. It’s a bit eye-opening to discover and confirm the reality of it all. This completely confined world exists in parallel to our own. From the chain-linked fence background to each etched feather of every bird…
To the somber expression of each individual inmate…
To the very scales of the serpents eating their own tails… The amount of technical and raw skills to carve these intricate scenes on the curved surface of an ostrich egg is just extraordinary.
Gil Batle really brings each story to life. It’s seriously amazing.
GANG CHART II
It is to my understanding that most of the prisons in the US are not as racially segregated as California’s prisons. During my incarceration in the California prison system, races, for the most part.. did not mix.. In the California Prison System, there are 4 main races that are segregated by cells.. Whites, Blacks, Mexicans and Others… Although, there are several more gangs other than the ones that I’ve carved here on this egg, I’ve selected to carve two convicts from within each of those 4 races that stood out to me the most.. in mug shot form ( real names are rarely used in prison) along with the tattooed symbols I’ve seen during my incarceration.
Egg Mug shot general note: There are teardrops on some of the convicts’ mug shots. A tattoo of a teardrop at the outer edge of the eye has different meanings.. Depending on which race is wearing it, could mean:
1 teardrop = 1 to 5 years in prison or one teardrop for every person that they’ve killed.. A colored-in tear drop means murder.. a lined out teardrop, (not filled in with color) is attempted murder.. In prison, a teardrop as with any other unapproved tattoos will not be worn as decoration and that tattoo will be removed with consequences.
IT’S YOUR FAULT
It begins with my father.. and most of the prisoners’ fathers.. If you look closely at the father whipping the child, you’ll notice the child’s hair.. Sort of a Denis the Menace cut.. and as you continue on the next panels to the right, you’ll see that same haircut on a certain character in each panel… It’s the same guy progressing on to prison.. He gets whipped as a child.. becomes the bully, carries that behavior on to his own family (I never hit a woman in my life.. I was a boxer and couldn’t do that kind of damage to a woman… A lot of men in prison did.. Not me.. But I had to express this on the egg) Soon after, he falls into crime and faces the police on the streets then eventually.. the prison guards.. The whipping/beating became a part of their lives.. Sooner or later the beatings don’t hurt anymore and any punishment after that is futile. “Two hots and a cot..”
Unfortunately, “Hatched in Prison” is no longer showing in New York. We were actually really lucky to catch these masterpieces on the very last day of the exhibition. But, I hope that these eggs are making their way to a new city for public viewing. Gil Batle’s stories need to be seen and heard. His work is truly incredible and will remain vivid in my memory.