With millions of people behind bars in the U.S., artist Hank Willis Thomas thinks about all of the ideas that are locked away with them. “Look at all the wisdom, look at all the heart that is imprisoned in our society,” he says.
He and professor Baz Dreisinger are the co-founders of The Writing on the Wall, a project that takes the words of incarcerated people beyond prison and jail walls. “There was so much poetry in there, just so much beauty, drawings, thoughts, so much reflection of humanity,” says Dreisinger.
Dreisinger also founded the Incarceration Nations Network, a coalition of prison reformers, and she teaches English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Technically I was teaching English classes, but really I was teaching criminal justice through the lens of the humanities — and that to me is what The Writing on the Wall is,” she says.
The project began small and grew to institutional proportions through projections of those words on the sides of buildings in the U.S. and Mexico.
Initially, Dreisinger and Thomas enlisted architects to design a mobile installation booth that resembled a prison cell with the words of the incarcerated on the walls, floor and ceiling. The idea was to take the booth to cities around the U.S. and Canada, but after its New York debut, the pandemic hit.
With the tour canceled, the organizers got the idea of projecting those words on public buildings, often ones that are part of the criminal justice system. A company called Chemistry Creative came up with a projection system. The Writing on the Wall has been seen in Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Columbus, Ohio and Mexico City. Their last installation was at Brooklyn Public Library.
“There is nothing that I as an artist or anyone can really do or say that is more extraordinary than the things these artists were doing …” says Thomas. “Some of them had not thought of themselves as artists but it was clear that they were.”
One of those artists, Devon Simmons, served 15 years in New York prisons, graduated from the Prison-to-College Pipeline program, and is now working as a paid curator and tour guide for the project.
“People who are incarcerated are not only talking about issues that they’re enduring in prison, but talking about issues which impact everybody …” Simmons says. “It’s really powerful for the Writing on the Wall to be in these public spaces to create the dialogue in pursuant to create the change that we need to see.”
In the coming weeks, The Writing on the Wall will be projected on buildings in East Harlem, Boise, Idaho and the San Francisco Bay Area.