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“Graffiti Art in Prison” by Martha Cooper & David Mesguich in Florence, Italy

November 24, 2023
4 min read

In the early days of 2021, a personal encounter with the prison system opened doors to a unique opportunity. Gabriella Cianciolo, a professor at the University of Cologne, extended an invitation to become a speaker in the interdisciplinary “Graffiti Art in Prison” project, aptly named GAP. Eagerly embracing the chance, our protagonist proposed taking the initiative a step further by organizing a workshop within the confines of Florence Sollicciano jail.

Sollicciano prison, like many correctional facilities worldwide, exists in a shadowy space on the periphery between two municipalities – Florence and Scandicci. Isolated from the city, it becomes a place forgotten, much like those left behind its imposing walls. During this period, a serendipitous encounter with the renowned New York-based photographer Martha Cooper occurred in a train yard while our protagonist was engaged in graffiti work. seizing the opportunity, Martha was invited to document the entire transformative process within the jail from 2022 to 2023.

Our idea was to place art at the center of a dialogue between the past and the present, between often-forgotten individuals and the possibilities of redemption through artistic expression, says David Mesguich.

An intriguing aspect of the project is the involvement not only of inmates but also of prison guards. Thus, the project becomes a true social experiment that aimed to break down mental and cultural barriers.

We saw surprising human connections emerge between guards and inmatesduring an experience that transcended simple artistic creation, says a representative from the prison administration involved in the project.

Teaming up with Martha for an entire year, the project aimed to fulfill promises made to the participants. In collaboration with workshop attendees, 3D scans of volunteer inmates were created, with the intention of using these scans for later sculpting. Surprisingly, a respectful relationship between some guards and inmates emerged, leading to the inclusion of a few guards in the scanning process. After extensive negotiations with jail authorities, permission was granted to create two large-scale installations on the jail fence at different times during the year.

Choosing to portray the two most discreet participants – a police woman and an inmate – without disclosing their identities, our protagonist highlighted the shared humanity within this unusual place. Despite relentless attempts by the jail’s police commander to thwart the installations, the team persevered, successfully setting them up on time. The second phase involved the creation of murals – three by inmates with complete artistic freedom, followed by nine more by our protagonist. The murals featured portraits and sentences from both guards and inmates, deliberately obscured to challenge preconceptions.

This immersive journey unfolded as a beautiful human adventure, marked by workshops and murals conducted by Martha, inmates, and students from the GAP project. The enclosed photographs by Martha Cooper serve as the sole remnants of this monumental yet ephemeral project. Their significance lies in being witnesses to a moment when fences were crossed, and differences were temporarily erased – a testament to the power of art to transcend boundaries and create connections in unexpected places

Check out below for more photos of the project.

Photo Credits: Martha Cooper, David Mesguich



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