This story is over 5 years old.

prison art

A Popup LA Art Space is Exclusively Showing Works by Convict and Ex-Convict Artists

With ‘Legal Goods,’ the team behind recently closed LA DIY art space Think Tank Gallery question whether 'legal' is actually good.

After in the wake of Oakland's Ghost Ship fire, DIY art spaces around the country knew the clock was ticking. Think Tank Gallery, a now venue-less Los Angeles-based alternative art space, was one of the collectives that saw the writing on the wall. Although they had survived for seven years through creative alliances with local officials, Think Tank quickly found itself shuttered. Not content to give up, and hoping to question the very idea of whether legal is actually good, Think Tank is currently staging an exhibition titled Legal Goods, which features only artworks created by convict and ex-convict artists.


Organized by Think Tank co-founder Jacob Patterson and artist Phil America, Legal Goods—the third installment in Think Tank's ongoing You Are Here series—is being held at the Bonito Swap Meet in LA's MacArthur Park neighborhood, and is open until April 30th. Think Tank chose the location because its owners gave them a free month for setup and teardown in exchange for restoring and updating their mural, which had been tagged with graffiti. The location is also long time Mexican immigrant neighborhood, which adds some political flavor to the exhibition space.

"Phil approached us with the idea of showing only prison-made items and artists with a criminal record, at a gallery kicked out for breaking the law, in a neighborhood notorious in LA for illegal activity and immigrants," says Patterson, a street artist and ex-convict himself. "He wanted to humanize all of the above, as most of his projects do."

While the Legal Goods title openly questions the difference between "legal" and "good," it is also a play on words relating to, as Patterson says, "the anonymous indentured servants making our everyday items from inside the prison system." Patterson and America believe notions of "legal" and "good" will become more confusing in the United States in the next four years.

"Our gallery being kicked out—doing what we think was good work—for obscure legal reasons, made this the perfect time to jump on the project," says Patterson. "Especially for a 'gallery' that calls itself Post-Street Art, a genre evolved from illegal activity."


A convict's wallet sculpture made of cigarette packaging

America, like Patterson, is an ex-convict who served time in jail in LA for an old graffiti case. As he tells Creators, he met a lot of people inside, then smuggled a few things out that were made for him. America's "illegal galleries," which he has held in New York subways and along the US-Mexico border, amongst other places, were a natural inspiration for Legal Goods. Once he and Think Tank came together, America started commissioning artworks from people in prison, then began devising ways of getting the pieces out.

"[To] many in the art world, [this] is considered 'craft' but to me it's definitely a form of outsider art," America says. "Each piece can take weeks or months to create and are made of the items one can get access to such as cigarette packages, candy wrappers, matches, bed clothes, floss, and other things."

A convict's matchstick sculpture

Legal Goods also features work by ex-convicts Shepard Fairey, godfather of Cholo writing "Chaz" Bojorquez, and Michael Knowlton, who served time for marijuana back in the day, as Patterson notes. Artist Cockney, who also appears in the show, treats his crimes as public services. As Patterson notes, Cockney allows fans to buy his art by paying the cost of the vandalism fee, with the receipt being an actual copy of the citation.

"Utah and Ether have one of the most famous stories in recent graffiti lore and they sent us drawings and dice they sold in prison for like $3 a pop," says Patterson. "Outside of prison we're selling them at fine art rates, which is a conversation I love."


Installation view

Think Tank is already planning other projects, including shows in apartment complexes, laundromats, and abandoned spaces inside LA's sprawl. They are also planning a massive summer exhibition called Drinkin' Smokin' & West Coastin', which will take place across multiple venues, pairing artists with a large-scale immersive production.

"This time it will be themed around West Coast hip-hop, which pretty much built me into what I am," Patterson says. "It will be the first time we attempt to host a show at multiple venues at once. Other than that we are focusing on our podcast, highlighting dope talent online, and maybe a pop-up in there somewhere."

Society of Destruction by Shepard Fairey

What Think Tank's Legal Goods proves, apart from the fact that art is boundless, is that the shutdown of a DIY space isn't a death sentence. Or, at least it doesn't have to be. With enough ambition and creativity, alternative art spaces across the country can soldier on in this country's gentrifying, post-Ghost Ship political atmosphere.

Hufer One

CALI by Chaz Bojorquez (2012)

Think Tank and Dorian Lynde working on the Bonito Swap Meet mural.

Click here to stay tuned into Think Tank Gallery's various upcoming projects.


[Op-Ed] The Party Is Over: Defending DIY Spaces After Ghost Ship

Chicago's 2nd Floor Rear Festival Celebrates DIY Art Spaces of All Kinds | #50StatesofArt

Find Your "Alt + Esc" at this DIY Art Heaven