Murals and Prodigals: Transformation art with gangs in Guatemala Prisons

By Leah Sanuelson


Estrategia de Transformacion staff showed me to the prison for barrio 18 gang members at 9:00 this morning. We entered with a long line of wives and girlfriends bringing clothes and gifts to men inside.

I was introduced to two artists in a hallway who were interested in helping with the mural. My host from EDT asked if I was ready to begin painting. I said no, and asked where was the wall we were supposed to consider. “Right here,” he said, “in front of us. This is these men’s home. Where would you like to start?”

There are 140 men living in this hall and the 10 or so suites attached to it behind heavy iron doors. I walked the length of the hall among crowds of men sitting on balled up mattresses on the floor, some writing in notebooks at small wooden desks, and some gathering in the corner to receive condoms from a visiting social worker. One side of the hall is finished with inmate artists’ black and white murals of skeletons, masks, and women. The other side contains 2 iconic religious murals. My host suggested I fill one of the blank spaces on that side- near the door, so visitors will see it.

My host and I explained the prodigal son theme of the mural to and held a brainstorming session with the 15 men who had drawn near us. We conferred on the particulars of what the mural characters should look like- what they should wear, their hair, shoes, etc.

From my seat in one of the desks I sketched two inmates who modeled the father’s and son’s poses for the mural. It was difficult to find a volunteer to model s the son- on his knees with his arms raised to the father. The sketching process was intriguing. One young man had his portrait sketched as a keepsake- capturing his gang-signaling hand gesture. Our prodigal son model helped me measure every dimension of our complicated wall. It is interrupted by iron doors, cement pillars, and miscellaneous bolts.

Then my host interpreted as I introduced myself and the project to the entire room. “They are expecting a lesson from the scriptures.” My host told me. So my introduction included a brief sermon on the message in the prodigal story.

We described the 3 step process of the mural. I would make the final drawing of a composition based on my sketches that evening. Tomorrow I would draw the outline onto the wall itself. Next, volunteer artists would accent and shade the outline in black using their tested technique seen in the hall. Finally, anyone interested would be welcome to help fill the rest of the piece with color and brighten the hall.

My host drove me to a hardware store to purchase gallons of colored paint and cheap brushes. Only house paints (and the colors there included) were available, so the palette will remind viewers of a local home.

I am producing the design and drawing for the composition in a notebook with colored pencils I brought with me. My housing host walked me down the street in her neighborhood to a craft stand that sold us a large sheet of plain white wrapping paper- perfect for a large-scale final design.

I had wanted to use an overhead projector to transfer the design onto the wall. But the EDT host would not allow it. He said gang artists apply their drawing plans by eye and hand. It would be considered inauthentic to project and trace a drawing.

As I sketched the models today an onlooker murmured, “Yeah, she can do this.”

So now the project and the pressure are on. The painting styles and skills we will use need to be something we can all be proud of. There are men in here with sentences ranging from 6 years to 250 years. We’d better make this process literally something to live by.


Today I learned I am the only woman- inmate or visitor- who is wearing pants. Women are required to wear skirts because they are harder to use to cover smuggled things. I’m self-conscious now that I look the shabbiest in the whole place- all the other female visitors are well-dressed when they come.

I was introduced to the prison warden on our way in. I hope he will visit the mural when it’s completed- but a couple of weeks ago a vice-warden was killed in a gang ward elsewhere in the city, so this may not be the time.

We needed to get the drawing transferred onto the wall first thing. We would use the grid system and had to draft a giant grid on our wall. We were using vine charcoal, a measuring tape, and a T-square. Three men took care of the project with authority and teamwork. Our ladder is half-way to broken and required at least one stabilizing spotter at all times.

I asked one of my interpreters if he thought this was a good prison. He said no- there are no good prisons in Guatemala. They are infamous for it.

We started the day with a prayer. I’m doubtful of the instructive nature of my intros and prayers but at least we bless and give thanks for the project. The Spirit is with us and the cooperation and the wall testify to it.

I needed to draw up the design from a distance to monitor proportions and get good, sweeping lines. I taped a piece of charcoal to the end of a broomstick to extend my reach.

The two artists I met yesterday assumed responsibility for outlining and shading the entire image in black. The figures in the mural are looking great because one of the artists handled all their details and their style.

To our surprise, the men were adamant that the father figure not have any tattoos or jewelry. They wanted him dressed in ancient, nondescript robes and sandals. The grand scheme of the mural is a landscape showing three points of the story- the father waiting and watching in the distance, the father running full-speed in the mid-ground, and embracing his son in the foreground.

Some men were taken aback by the running father. They had never heard of God putting himself out there to meet anyone.

I hope the scene will provide visual relief to the room as well. It contains distant mountains and come Thursday, the sky will be blue with white clouds. The hallway of this ward is cramped and dirty and has no furniture. We put a tall tree in the foreground to bring a feeling of life, and I’m going to ask if we can add pink flowers to the bushes that line the hills.

It's hard to know what to think about the painting gangsters. They have such a strong and violent reputation here (no one will work with them), and I'm getting feedback from different outside sources: One opinion is that these guys aren't a good use of our resources, which would be better spent in poor villages with people who aren't murdering people. Another opinion is that the real enemy lies within the church- among those who don't consider these guys human.

When it comes to danger, you're not in trouble until things go wrong. But things could, and do go wrong anywhere- like they have for much of these men's lives. I have a lot of questions.

I'm excited about this project. This is exactly the type of learning I was hoping for when I applied to the [Eastern University MA in Urban Studies: Arts in Transformation] program. I need probably three more years of watching and helping before I'll begin a good understanding of what we're doing here. (But then, when I begin to understand, I tend to try something new to test things again.)


Today the men made us lunch. It was a nice surprise! Two fries eggs with beans and a lot of bread. One of the chaplains who translates for us was excited to take several photos of me eating it. One or two chaplains sit with the men every day. While I am here they are my guides and guards.

The men who gather to watch the mural process learned my name today. I only know four of them by name. Some have been asking about my life- how many hours I paint each day, how much I charge for a mural in the States, if I have children, if my goal is to win a painting prize, and the meaning of the figures in the mural. Some members talk with me through our interpreters, others without them. I can’t say anything back, but they don’t stop.

There is no end to the coughing in the prison. I don’t know how the men ever rest with constant waves of soccer, pacing, yelling, and music flowing down the hall. The floor is dotted with a matrix of phlegm. This morning I watched someone spit in the center of the hallway seconds before a paint can was set on the spot.

We have all our supplies piled on the floor, slightly out if the way of the two ladders that service the mural and block access to two iron doors. The men who live behind the doors never gave us permission to redecorate the front of their home. The oldest guy in the room (age 36) told me today to pull the ladders away from the wall a bit to avoid making the men underneath trapped and angry.

One of the chaplains is a former gang member from another gang and another city. His arms too are covered by tattoos. I’m learning the significance of being marked. There are no purely decorative tattoos in this city. All tattoos mean gangster and gangsters are killed by each other and by police on sight. Gang members are bitterly referred to as “swarming army ants.” They are hated by all society and blamed for more than their share of city problems. Tattooed individuals dare not be seen on buses or outside their neighborhoods. Neighborhoods home to the largest gangs are never entered by police.

This chaplain is always in danger- being marked and being “outside.” There really are no options for living as a gangster other than representing on your own streets or being in prison. These men have a short life expectancy and they know it. The chaplain has a fearless passion for these men. He is a can-do guy. (Of all the people who are upset that I don’t speak Spanish, he is the only one who is teaching me. But because his arms are tattooed, he can never be the one who escorts me to and from the prison.)

Two men in particular took the reigns of the color-fill painting process today. The oldest guy painted the entire sky a beautiful blue. I hope it is a sign of his own role and future. The resident tattoo artist is going to paint the ink on the prodigal figure. He told me he would help after we painted in the skin color.

We only have hot pink, Kraft cheese yellow, and tropical blue and green paints to work with. I mix all the colors for the murals using Styrofoam bowls- some for dipping, some for mixing. Paint drips everywhere, and we couldn’t find a garbage bag for a drop-cloth today. There are no tables or trash cans. I try to keep the supply area tidy so I can tell the difference between bowls containing our ready-colors, bowls with leaks, and dipping bowls. There is an endless influx of bits of trash in the hallway. I can’t figure out where it all comes from. The men sweep twice a day.

I arrived at a semi-recognizable skin color in a bowl with a leak, but onlookers insisted I lighten the tone. It looks a bit Nordic now, and the face they painted on the prodigal’s father looks like an iconic Jesus from an early twentieth-century shrine. I had composed the father looking down at his son. But the artist who painted him lifted his gaze. Now he looks directly at the viewer. It’s powerful- it’s amazing.

Somebody commented today that the subject matter dreamt up by we “regular” people is a nice break from their familiar skull and death motifs.

We’ve got all types of painter personalities working together- the marathon painters who take a color and exhaust its possibilities, the hopeful onlookers who jump at the invitation to take a bowl and a brush and paint in a bush, the guy who has to go and wash his hands after each painting spell, and the one who starts doing a great job but then disappears for the rest of the day.

We need to finish by tomorrow afternoon because we want to have a dedication party. The painters seem obsessed with double-coating everything – but they can’t be hurried. Spreading the color your own way is the best part about painting a mural. We are a little concerned our water-based paints won’t hold up to the weather that sneaks through the hall’s high windows. As I sat with my hot lunch, wishing I could wash my hands before eating, soaking in smoke from cigarettes rolled in notebook paper, we talked about applying a clear oil varnish to seal the painting. Someone said hardly any rain comes through the windows anyway. But it’s encouraging to want to preserve something you’ve made- I think it’s worth it.


We didn’t have the proper party we were hoping for when we finished the mural today. The tall, sturdy ladder we needed to reach the top half of the wall was in use at the prison hospital most of the day. I had brought with me a change of nice clothes for the event, but someone spilled black paint on the blouse while it was poking out of my purse on the ground. We actually were painting up until the moment we left.

There were four guys who saw the mural through to the end- two marathon painters and two detail artists. The tall ladder was eventually available to us and the marathon painters picked up the pace with their painting- using larger and larger brushes, a sign of proficiency. We found a working system where they would stay high on the ladder and call down to me what colors and brushes they needed.

The resident tattoo artist is apparently a classic artist type. We had been waiting for him to paint tattoos on the prodigal son like he said he would. After the whole mural was finished he appeared and began his finishing touches- with time and space to himself. Across the back of the prodigal he painted an amazing B-E-S-T (Barrio Eighteenth St.).

On the right shoulder he painted a face, then he left again. Another man stood up and painted over this one with skin-color. He said onlookers complained they didn’t like it. The angered artist took his bat and went home, so to speak, and wouldn’t join our group for our final photograph.

So that’s how we finished our project-painting out a small, black tattoo. Markings are an important part of the culture. There is a mint-green hill in the painting, pink flowers on the bushes, and multiple proportional errors throughout the mural- but nobody said anything about that. There was more interest in making sure white socks were painted around the prodigal’s ankles, and in the four-inch BuildaBridge logo I drew in the bottom corner to sign and date the piece. The tiny logo was a big hit. The men instantly recognized it as my sign and started asking questions.

There were babies crying in the ward today. A couple of them were visiting their fathers and one was our chaplain’s baby boy. The chaplain brought his wife and four year old daughter to celebrate as well- along with a table, orange soda, and ham sandwiches for everyone. The men were excited to see the kids, who brought a nice change from the restless, “Never Land” atmosphere that dominates the hall.

Our mural has two significances- one is the message of the accepted prodigal that will illustrate discussions to come in studies with the ward’s chaplains. The ex-gang member chaplain said he believes people join gangs out of a lack of love. Now there is a six-foot embrace between father and son, painted by the men, standing in the center of their hall. The other significance is the therapeutic value of physically spreading paint. You could see the satisfaction of the marathon painters in the method, goal, and results of brushing chosen colors around leaves and weaving between lines.

Some men called a chaplain early this morning to see how I was doing. Truth is I was really stomach sick. The men called back to say they had prepared one of their bathrooms for me to use when I arrived. The chaplain could not believe they had done such a thing. For several years he has done the work to build respect and relationships. He’s invested in the men body and soul. Nothing says welcome like true hospitality. The chaplain was never happier about a prison toilet.

We left all the paints and brushes in the prison. There was some talk about extending the mural over to connect with one of their existing murals of three crosses. Maybe they can do that this summer. We talked again about preserving the mural with a varnish. I think that is necessary because when I can home, I washed the dried, black paint out of my blouse with only water.
Some who know the story of the prodigal son asked about the whereabouts of the older son. There needs to be another mural project, in a local church perhaps, about the conversion of the other prodigal son, who needs to be persuaded to join the party in a way the younger son does not. The older son would look like someone in the church. It would be nice to photograph each mural and share them with each other- both parts of the story bringing prodigals together by the same God.

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