After Going to Jail for Vandalism, a Virginia Muralist Keeps Painting

Mickael Broth was convicted of vandalism in his 20s. The experience made him appreciate the power of artistic expression.

Diana Shi

Diana Shi

This article originally appeared on Creators.

Though he's now a celebrated muralist, Virginia-based artist Mickael Broth's work used to get him into trouble. More than a decade ago, as a graffiti-obsessed teenager, he was convicted of vandalism and destruction of property, and subsequently served 10 months in jail.

Forthcoming and transparent, Broth now draws on the experience to inform his creative work, and even wrote a series of books about what it's like to be an artist behind bars. "My experience with graffiti ended pretty poorly, by most standards. I wound up spending ten months behind bars in Richmond in 2004, and it fucked up things with my family enough that it was the end of my involvement in vandalism," Broth tells Creators. "I didn't have the winding-down experience most people get with graffiti as they get older. Most people age out of it. I was forced to stop right as I felt like I was finally getting decent."

Broth's brush with the law strained his relationship with his family, but 13 years later, those wounds have healed, and now the artist treasures his ability to incorporate loved ones into his works. Broth says he "almost always incorporates some bits of personal narrative, political ideology, symbolism relating to my friends, or small details like hidden initials calling out my wife, our kid, and dogs."

Broth is thoughtful and purposeful, pushing himself to create work at the highest possible level. Like many artists who have led complicated lives, work that requires process and discipline resonates the most with Broth. "When I was in jail, I started making these cartoonish but complex pen and ink drawings—all you could use were ballpoint pens on legal paper—and they were basically me depicting what was happening in my life, at the time. I remember coming to the conclusion that I didn't care if other people didn't like them, as long as they couldn't deny the skill it took to make them. I'd say that's the one uniting thread that runs through the vastly different styles I've worked in over the years. No matter what, I want a viewer to have to give credit where it's due for a finely crafted work of art."

The artist, who goes by @TheNightOwl on Instagram, finds respite in solitude late at night. With a cold six-pack of beers, he finds creative inspiration away from daytime pressures. "You're able to escape the overload of life late at night by yourself. You can really tap into your own thoughts, while simultaneously opening your brain up to all the weird thoughts that are drifting around in space... that's when you connect with the subconscious things that most people are dreaming about and you're able to really create work that connects on a deeper level."

Graphic line illustrations, loose plein air paintings with a touch of skatepark grit, and geometric designs all abound in Broth's artistic wheelhouse. "Boredom fuels a lot of my drive. I get tired of things and want a new challenge. I see so many people get stuck in their 'thing' or 'gimmick,' and I just don't understand how they can't be bored out of their minds making the same shit over and over. I might not always hit the mark by everyone's standards, but I know that effort keeps me improving overall."

In his professional life, Broth has transformed from a fringe artist working illegally to a respected creator with work shown in galleries. He's watched Richmond, VA undergo a similar transfiguration. "Over the past decade, and specifically the past five years, this city has been thriving, particularly in the arts. The RVA Street Art Festival was started in 2012 by Ed Trask and Jon Baliles as a way to bring talent from around the country here to paint murals alongside local talent. I've helped out with the curation of that project over the past few years, and we've got another big festival coming up this fall," Broth says. "We've got work here now that rivals anything in cities around the world, and that brings people here to visit. It's really opened up a lot of acceptance of artistic expression and helped get people in the mindset that this is a capital of creativity."

To learn more about Mickael Broth and his artwork, visit his website and Instagram.

All year, we're highlighting 50 States of Art projects around the United States.