While locked up in a U.S. prison, Jesse Krimes secretly created epic works of art

Q53:59Jesse Krimes + Sasha Mark

Jesse Krimes is one of the most talked-about visual artists in the world right now — and some of his most famous work was made in a U.S. prison. 

The Philadelphia-based artist served five years of a six-year sentence in a federal penitentiary after being convicted of a non-violent drug offence. While incarcerated, he secretly created monumental works of art using materials like bedsheets, hair gel and newspapers, smuggling the pieces out one-by-one through the prison mail room.

Like anyone who’s spent time in prison, Krimes had to adjust to life on the outside when he was released, but his situation was made more complicated by the fact that he was trying to find his footing as a rising star in the world of art. The artist was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and his work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Now, nearly a decade after his release, he’s the subject of a new MTV documentary, Art & Krimes by Krimes, available on Paramount+.

Listen to Krimes discuss his work in an interview on Q with Tom Power and follow along using the images below.


Artwork by Jesse Krimes
Jesse Krimes, Purgatory, 2009. Prison-issued soap, newsprint transfer, playing cards. (Jesse Krimes)

Krimes made his first prison artwork, Purgatory, while awaiting sentencing in solitary confinement. With no access to fresh air or socialization, Krimes told Q: “I started thinking about how I could use the materials of the prison against itself.”

Purgatory (detail)

Artwork by Jesse Krimes
Jesse Krimes, Purgatory (detail), 2009. (Jesse Krimes)

Using materials found in his cell, Krimes made Purgatory by transferring newspaper mugshots of people accused of crimes onto hundreds of wet bars of soap. The result is a commentary on crime, punishment and what it means to be absolved.

Purgatory (detail)

Artwork by Jesse Krimes
Jesse Krimes, Purgatory (detail), 2009. (Jesse Krimes)

Krimes hid the printed soaps from Purgatory in prison playing card containers and smuggled them to the outside world through the mailroom. He used the interior connector of a battery to cut the containers, and toothpaste to “glue” them together.


Artwork by Jesse Krimes
Jesse Krimes, Apokaluptein:16389067, 2010–13. Hand-transferred digital print, graphite, gouache, federal prison bedsheets. (Jesse Krimes)

Considered Krimes’s masterwork, Apokaluptein:16389067 is a mural made up of 39 prison bedsheets and illegally constructed over the course of three years. The title references the Greek origin of the word apocalypse. The numbers allude to Krimes’s Federal Bureau of Prisons identification number.


Artwork by Jesse Krimes
Jesse Krimes, Apokaluptein:16389067:II, 2015. Eastern State Penitentiary installation, digital image transfer, acrylic paint, federal prison bedsheets, wood, drywall, spackle. (Jesse Krimes)

Installed at the former Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, this piece, titled Apokaluptein:16389067:II, covers the interior walls of an abandoned cell. The installation is meant to reflect on Krimes’s experience making art to survive in prison.

Elegy Quilts series

Upon being released from prison, Krimes began to expand his practice. Pictured above is some of his textile work using antique quilts and used clothing collected from people who have been incarcerated.

Interview produced by Vanessa Greco.

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