by Jayson Hawkins
Etymology, the study of word origins, provides insight into commonly used words. For instance, ‘cell’ and ‘hell’ share an ancient root meaning ‘hide’: A resident of either is unseen, hidden away from society and the realm of the living.
How apt then that artist Jesse Krimes entitled the contraband work he created behind bars “Apokaluptein: 16389067,” combining the Greek word for ‘uncover’ with his federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) ID number.
“It was really striking to me,” said Krimes, of the six years he spent with BOP serving a sentence for cocaine possession, “just how many Black and brown people I came across.”
Though he is white, the realization that so many minority prisoners were serving long prison sentences for nonviolent crimes “kind of radicalized me,” the artist said.
“Apokaluptein: 16389067” was made using plastic spoons and hair gel to transfer newspaper clippings onto prison bedsheets. The 39 sheets were then smuggled out, some with the assistance of guards. After Krimes’ 2014 release, he assembled them into a mural 30 feet long and 15 feet tall. MTV Documentary Films’ release, Art & Krimes, tells his story. It premiered on Paramount+ streaming service in November 2022.
“I wanted to be able to have people see what it’s like in his mind, being an artist and the way that that intersected with the conditions in prison and the oppression there,” said film director Alysa Nahmias.
The film also features other formerly incarcerated artists Krimes knew while inside. After release, he managed to find work with a restorative justice program and has continued following his passion, generating over a hundred new pieces of art and taking part in more than two dozen exhibitions. Still, the racial disparities in the criminal justice system haunt him.
“I was often the only White person, and the only formerly incarcerated artist included in a lot of exhibitions across the country that were touching on themes of mass incarceration,” said Krimes. “I know the kind of brilliance and incredible creativity that a lot of my friends who are Black are creating ... behind prison walls.”
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