Artist JR Teamed Up With Current and Former Inmates to Create a Mural at a Supermax Prison Outside LA

Using the artist’s app, viewers can hear audio recordings made by those incarcerated at the Southern California facility.

JR, Tehachapi (2019). Courtesy of the artist.
JR, Tehachapi (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

Street art superstar JR has unveiled his newest project in an unlikely location: atop a maximum-security prison in Southern California.

Named Tehachapi after the town two hours north of Los Angeles where the prison is located, JR’s installation depicts 48 current and former inmates looking upward in a composited collage. The monumental artwork is only visible from above—or through an app, where viewers can tap on each incarcerated person in the digitized picture and hear their stories told in their own words. 

A friend approached the artist this fall with the idea of bringing his vision to a California correctional facility. “A friend of mine asked me if I wanted to do something at this prison,” the artist told Artnet News, noting that many of the “inmates were incarcerated when they were kids—14,15” and will be in there “for life.”

“Most of them haven’t killed anybody, they’re there because they had three strikes. I steal your phone, I steal your car, and one felony, and I get life,” JR said. “Now they’ve changed that law, but those guys are still stuck in there.”

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Part 1/2 TEHACHAPI Maximum Security prison – I have always been interested in jails. After all, as canvas jails are just closed walls. I did a project a few years ago in Rikers Island and it was a fascinating experience because nothing happens in a prison, and when those who are there are confronted with something new, it quickly becomes a highlight. They invest so much energy in it that it gets very emotional. A friend called me recently to say that I could be granted access to a jail in California. At first, I thought it would be too much paperwork and constraints, but luckily someone who participated in The Chronicles of San Francisco facilitated the process. So, with Google Earth, I browsed all the 35 State prisons of California, and I chose Tehachapi without knowing it was a maximum security prison… I just thought that the yard and the surroundings would make a perfect image. The idea was to meet with men working on rehabilitation, and to also engage formerly incarcerated men, their family members, as well as the prison staff, and survivors of violent crimes. When I got there, I understood that most of these men were incarcerated when they were teenagers between 13 and 20 … I told them about my project and made it clear that I did not want to know what they had done. They had a trial, they have been sentenced and I am not their judge. Nevertheless, a couple of guys left because they felt that their presence would be embarrassing for their families or for the families of their victims. I was asked not to approach the guys too closely because they are not comfortable with interactions but when I got in, I couldn't refrain from looking at them in the eyes, shaking their hands, introducing myself and asking their names. Just because that’s what humans do. They were amazingly grateful for this… A number of them were in prison for life because of the three strikes law in California. ( Part 2 on next post ) #representjustice @cacorrections

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Composed of 338 strips of paper, Tehachapi boasts a footprint similar to JR’s Louvre project from earlier this year, which spanned some 183,000 square feet. This work was installed by the subjects of the photo—including former inmates who returned to the facility for the first time since being released—along with prison staff and JR’s team. The process took only a few hours. The final photograph of the work was taken from above by a drone. 

Through the artist’s custom app, JR Murals, users can explore the image and the stories behind the people in it. “I made a mistake when I was a child,” explains one current inmate, an ex-gang member. “I was 21 years old when I committed my crime; I’m 37 years old now. Every day I strive to become a better person. People out there have this perception of people in prison, that we’re not able to rehabilitate… It’s a reservoir of people that can contribute.”

This is the fourth monumental multimedia piece JR has created for the app, which is available for free. He debuted the form for a special report in TIME Magazine on gun violence in America last year, then followed it up with two massive interactive murals for his solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, both of which aimed to offer interactive portraits of residents in their respective cities.

For Tehachapi, JR explains, the form gave a voice to those locked in a system that does not otherwise offer them one. “Who are the kinds of people who are in there?” the artist asks rhetorically. “I don’t make any judgments. I just listen to their story. Some spoke for 10 minutes, some spoke for 35. It was difficult but we met amazing people.”

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