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Jailhouse Art, Prison Art, Pano Arte - AKA Panuelos and Handkercheif Art

Updated on August 18, 2016
Austinstar profile image

Lela earned a B.A. degree in Journalism from Sam Houston University in Huntsville, TX. She has been writing for the online world for years.

History of Pano-Arte

Some say that handkerchief painting originated in Texas prisons. Many Mexicans were incarcerated in Texas jails during the 1940s. Most of them were Catholic and male. It is entirely possible that San Antonio had the largest share of Mexican prisoners in the world. Southern California being a close second.

Having much time on your hands creates an urge to do something. Painting and other art works are right brained activities that cause time to be invisible. Painters are often asked how much time it took to produce a work of art and the answer is usually "I don't remember" or "I couldn't say". It's very much like meditating. So the prisoners took to drawing like a duck to water.

Graffiti is historically a gangland activity. In jails, graffiti is commonly use to mark territory or pass on messages to other inmates. The true artists look for mediums available to them. The handkerchief was very much like a canvas and colored pens and pencils were available. Some artists used leftover wood from the woodshop, but solid objects like this were quickly recognized as contraband. Handkerchiefs were easily passed along to just about anyone and a warden could hardly make a case for banning them.

From my personal collection:

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Cartoon art on a handkercheifInteresting devilKeyholes represent imprisonment.Names erased.
Cartoon art on a handkercheif
Cartoon art on a handkercheif
Interesting devil
Interesting devil
Keyholes represent imprisonment.
Keyholes represent imprisonment.
Names erased.
Names erased.

Pano-Arte Themes

Cartoon characters

Available patterns in prison are usually cartoon characters. These are the most frequent patterns used. Good patterns are passed around and even used as collateral for items that inmates may purchase in the commissary as are the pañuelos themselves.

The quality of the art is always dependent on the artist. Talented artists have been incarcerated and have actually made a name as an artist by painting pañuelos. They are used as gift cards and sent home especially around the holidays.

All it takes is an envelope and a stamp to send them and prison art is very rarely censored. Some inmates have created such a demand for their art that the prices are equal to art in a museum. Collectors regularly buy pañuelos when they are up for sale on eBay or other auction sites.

Risque′ Themes

When men are shut up for years on end, their thoughts naturally turn to women and risque' themes. A very frequent theme is the Virgin of Guadalupe with roses and often without clothes. This is a Mexican/Catholic symbol that crops up over and over on pañuelos.

Women in prison art almost always have large busts and little clothing. Some images are banned, but that doesn't stop them from being smuggled around. These are the most sought after handkerchiefs for obvious reasons. These are traded for "chits" which can be used to buy food, gifts, or small personal items.

Graffiti, Tattoos, Low-Rider Art and Murals

All sorts of art is painted on to a handkerchief. The major themes include graffiti, tattoo art, art associated with the Low-Rider Chicanos of the South West and Mural art found throughout Mexico and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Flowers, religious symbols, women and fantasy art is what it's all about for men in the prison system. The expression of art can literally set them free.

View Contemporary Prison Art in this Video...

© 2011 Lela

Comments - Do you think jailhouse art is worthwhile?

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    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Good to know the system is still producing art! I'll have to check into that Tx Folklife exhibit. Thanks for the tip!

    • profile image

      Ruben 4 years ago

      Wow It brought back memories. I think I made like 400 panuelos while I was making time in different places in Texas beeville, karnes city, Brownsville. I was there for 3 years. And that's something I learn to do and love it. We used to cut our white sheets to make panuelos. This was ten years ago.

    • profile image

      ed jordan 4 years ago

      Austinstar, you might be interested to know that Texas Folklife Resources is mounting an exhibit of my collection of 63 Panos/Panuelos created by Chicanos in the Texas Prison System sometime later in mid-August this year. Their offices and gallery or just off South Congress.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Wow. You would have to track this down with the wardens and guards and prison records. The records would show the cell block your uncle was on and there may be several of these records as the prison system moves people around frequently.

      Then you would have to interview the inmates. You might try posting a bulletin with the prison newsletter (if there is one). You might try bribing an inmate or guard (I never said that).

      One thing you could try is searching for panuelo collectors and they may know who the artist is.

      It's a whole subculture. Your mom would be the place to start. She may know more about who did it. Or if you have the letters from your uncle, they may mention the artist.

      Good luck with your search!

    • profile image

      Mike LaSin 5 years ago

      Back in the early '50's my mother and I would take the train Indiana to visit my imprisoned uncle. Once, my mother bought a brand new white hanky and took it with us to the prison. On our next visit I was presented with an oil painting on that hanky of a western cowboy scene. I've since had it framed. I truly would like to somehow find out who the inmate artist was. I would ask my uncle but he has passed away and no one seems to know anything about a possible artist cell mate. Any suggestions ? ? ?

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Art makes life worth living in my opinion. Thanks for dropping by, Cindy.

    • Cindy Haase profile image

      Cindy Haase 5 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      So interesting! I am an oil and pastel painter and you are so right about "right brain activities make time invisible". Art, as life, finds a way to exist.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 6 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      It is pretty cool, isn't it?

    • profile image

      oakland23 6 years ago

      Wow, this is crazy beautiful. If looking at this artwork means what it does to me, I can only imagine what it must mean to the creators.

    • profile image

      S williams 6 years ago

      My friend served 14 yrs(danny reeves) before we met. I served 7 yrs. Him in prison, myself in elite infantry. The slang is virtually identical, we used to jjoke about it. Now to find out about hankerchief art, also the same. Well dan's past on now, I miss you brother.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 6 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Go for it Kat. I'll tell you anything I know which isn't all that much.

    • Katharella profile image

      Katharella 6 years ago from Lost in America

      Me thinks you already knew my hand drawn picture was prison art. And with your blood knowledge, you know that there are only two places in the world that holds the most stories. Hospitals and Prisons.

      I know this won't freak you out, and you probably already know.. blood, is the only, the one and only self generating paint. ;) *shudder*

      @Simone.. somehow, that did not surprise me. :)

      @Truckstop.. Oh, these ARE amazing, but there is no smoking in prisons anymore thus no more matches. But there are a lot of other media to be used. Foods. Dirt from shoes.. chipped paint... there's a list.

      I'm doing a hub on Survival in Prison, and I may have found my helper!

      ::nudge nudge Austin*:::

    • Truckstop Sally profile image

      Truckstop Sally 6 years ago

      Beautiful work. I have seen prison art created with used matchsticks, but this is new to me.

    • Sundaymoments profile image

      Matthew Dawson 6 years ago from United States

      Austinstar what a fantastic hub! I had never known that San Antonio had the largest Hispanic populated Prisoners.

      I love the you tube video!!


    • Sharyn's Slant profile image

      Sharon Smith 6 years ago from Northeast Ohio USA

      Great hub idea Austin ~ quite interesting!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Wow, how interesting! I've never even heard of handkerchief painting, let alone jailhouse art. Too cool!

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 6 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Thanks JAS. I was a friend of a friend of an inmate and we corresponded for a year or so. He is the one that sent me the handkerchiefs. He's out now, married with lots of kids and living in Maine of all places.

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Really interesting hub, something that I have never given much thought to. When I saw the title with Jailhouse and Prison in it I had to read it. I have always for some reason been fascinated in prisons. I really like your handkerchiefs too.

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Lol! That is a fabulous suggestion! How great minds think alike!

      I REALLY loved it! Another fascinating piece about how the mind works under unusual circumstances. I loved the inclusion of the handkerchiefs! I haven't seen those but I'm going to request one from someone - you know;)! Haha!

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 6 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      I knew you would like it! You should do a hub about graffiti!

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Austinstar - this is the beyond description awesome! I love everything about it. Prison art is fascinating. It is sometimes the most raw form of expression I have ever felt when looking at it. I am glad to understand it better.

      I often wonder if the act of doing the art is a form of self hypnosis. I think it is.

      Thanks - this is just superb and I'm sharing it because it is so interesting.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 6 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      While working as liaison for the journalism department of Sam Houston State and Texas Dept. of Corrections I got to know several inmates, guards, and others that worked in the system. It was very eye opening for me and an experience I will never forget.

      I won't say the conditions were deplorable, but the loss of freedom alone would be sufficient punishment for me to go insane. Art projects and school courses would be imperative to me.

    • Spirit Whisperer profile image

      Xavier Nathan 6 years ago from Isle of Man

      A very informative hub giving us an insight into a world many of us , hopefully, will never have to visit. I love art in all its forms and see it as expression for the soul. No matter what a person has done their essence is divine.

      Thank you for a great hub.

    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 6 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Although Chicanos are often condemned for violent behavior and drug use, etc., it is less well known they are far and and away the cleanest prisoners in their person and their cells. Their art is often seen in extensive and imaginative tats., both prison type and from the world. (prisoners refer to life outside the bars as "the world"). Prison art is often of international standard and given the materials they have access to is nothing short of miraculous. I spent 3 years in Huntsville so I saw all this at first hand. Great hub...Up and Awesome...Bob

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 6 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Great Hub thanks.

      And some really beautiful paintings.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 6 years ago from south Florida

      Lela - In the olden days, a woman would drop her handkerchief to get the attention of the male object of her desire. Do you think some of these artistic prisoners are using their hand-painted panuelos in much the same way - with other prisoners, that is?

      Fascinating hub.

    • sangre profile image

      Sp Greaney 6 years ago from Ireland

      Great Hub, I never knew any of this. I don't think the prisons here would ever do anything like that.