Boobs, Skulls, and Mickey Mouse: The Art of Hardened Mexican Prisoners

Reno Leplat-Torti

Paños are proof that even the most hardened criminals make their mothers hand-drawn cards on Mother's Day.

All images courtesy of Reno Leplat-Torti / Paños Chicanos

Words by Rik Beune.

The tradition of paño (from the Spanish 'pañuelo' which means 'handkerchief') began in the correctional facilities of Western American States sometime in the 1940s. At the time, decorating handkerchiefs was the only way for illiterate Mexican prisoners to communicate with the outside world. To this day, paños are still often sent to friends and family instead of letters, while, in certain prisons, the handkerchiefs are a popular form of currency.

Most of the artworks are tattoo-like images of skulls, clowns, lowriders, and pin-up girls drawn on muslin cloth with a ballpoint pen. Themes range from religious to pornographic, with decorative elements like boobs, teddy bears, skulls, and unicorns alternating repeatedly as if they were conceived in pairs. Paños basically show that even the most hardened criminals make their mother a hand-drawn card on Mother's day.

Up until recently, paños rarely made it past the walls of prison cells or of the prisoners' relatives' homes. Five years ago, while researching prison artifacts artist and collector Reno Leplat-Torti discovered the art of paños and set out to collect as many of them as possible. At the moment, his collection counts more than 200, which he has been exhibiting in galleries all around Europe.

Find out more about Leplat-Torti's collection here.

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