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An Exhibition of Inmate Inventions Opens in a Freight Elevator

Homemade tattoo guns, pens, electrical cables, and more go on display at Stefan Ruiz's new exhibition with Mmuseumm.
May 28, 2015, 8:01pm
Tattoo Gun, made from a small motor, pen, guitar string, wire, and tape. Images courtesy of Mmueseumm

Tonight in the Downtown New York freight elevator that is Mmueseumm, photographer Stefan Ruiz opens a new exhibition, Inmate Inventions. On display will be objects constructed in prison as well as prison cell interior portraits by Ruiz.

The objects on display are culled from the personal collection of items Ruiz purchased from inmates during the late 90s when he was an art educator for some of California’s most dangerous state prisons, including San Quentin, Pelican Bay, Soledad, and Tehachapi. “I taught main line inmates from minor crimes to lifers," Ruiz tells The Creators Project. "I also taught on death row.”

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Restricted from most liberties, prisoners often make their own opportunities with materials at hand. They take the notion of DIY to unforeseen heights, creating tattoo guns out of Walkman motors, electrical tape, pieces of pens, and guitar strings, and attaching razor blades to electrical cords charged by pen clips to heat water for coffee, tea, or ramen. Homemade pens are wrapped with Post-It notes and tied with elastics from socks (their traditional plastic barrels are banned in prisons for fear that inmates will melt the plastics to make weapons). The pieces themselves are intricate constructions that are utilitarian and ultimately quite beautiful in their level of detail. They speak to an underground economy for creativity.

The interior of Mmuseumm

Electrical Stinger, Soledad State Prison. Made from appliance cord, pen clips, razor blades, rubber bands, and the plastic from a fork or spoon. 

“Some of the items here were considered contraband. But their potential for making money outweighed the consequences,” says Ruiz. The exhibit also includes tattooed plastic and Tupperware pieces that show the craft and desire to personalize objects. On display are a cup and two plastic containers from one inmate’s personal stash of creamer and instant coffee. “They are fascinating objects," he explains. "They show what people make out of nothing, and adapt to where they are to make their lives a little more colorful.”

Mmuseumm will also display 13 small photos of prison landscapes and interiors by Ruiz, taken at various California prisons, alongside the 11 objects in the show. Curator Alex Kalman says he sees Mmuseumm space as a “form of humanistic journalism, understanding the world today through objects.” The subject of prisons is in line with the museum’s programming to showcase contemporary artifacts and objects to explore themes of daily human existence, social issues, and current events. “Prisons are something that hold such a large place in our society," Kalman explains. "This is a way to humanize that experience."

Pens, Pelican Bay State Prison, The outer case is removed and pens are wrapped with found paper and Post-It notes and tied with elastic. 

Coffee and Creamer Set, Soledad State Prison. The plastic containers are tattooed with the inmate's nickname.

Prison Yard, Stefan Ruiz

Mmuseumm is open to the public on weekends in New York City. This exhibition will run throughout the year. Click here to watch VICE's documentary on Stefan Ruiz, and here to visit the artist's website.

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