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Rikers Island is a dismal and dangerous place. Spread across 415 acres of repurposed landfill in the the East River between the Bronx and Queens, the island is home to more than 12,000 inmates in 10 separate jail facilities. There were 73 stabbings and slashings committed by inmates in 2013, and the general reputation for brutality, rape, and abuse earned Rikers a ranking among America’s 10 worst prisons last year. It’s basically the last place on Earth that a street artist like Ben Eine wants to find himself.
Eine was arrested multiple times for vandalism during his days as a graffiti writer, and he has pulled off some impressive stunts (including painting the West Bank barrier in Palestine with Bansky), but his recent daylong stint in Rikers was completely legal and voluntary. In fact, a warden actually invited Eine to paint a wall inside the jail, part of a new program aimed at inspiring young inmates with art. I profiled Eine and his new gallery work last week for Village Voice, and he invited me along to document what promised to be a surreal experience inside New York’s notorious lockup.
I met Eine and his accomplices Ben, Julio, and Lorenzo at a painfully early hour on a frigid Thursday morning last week. We nursed coffees, and stopped to gather the essential supplies — spray paint and cigarettes — before heading to Rikers. The island’s only connection to land is a narrow bridge on the northern tip of Queens with guardhouses at either end. Although a prison official had invited Eine to the jail, the artist has the word “GUILTY” tattooed on his neck and generally looks the part of an erstwhile graffiti writer. The awkwardness was palpable when we arrived at the first guardhouse.
Eine’s partner Ben rolled down the window and announced, “We’re here to paint a wall,” sounding as cheerful as possible with his British accent.
The guard surveyed the bleary-eyed and bearded artists. He looked confused. “You’re here to post bail?”
After a few minutes of convincing, we were ordered to park, unload all the paint and gear, and wait for another guard to come ferry us across the bridge. Eine lit the first of many Marlboro Lights, and we stood shuffling our feet and rubbing our hands. The forecast called for a high of 25 degrees, and the wind on the exposed parts of the island is bitterly cold. After 30 minutes, our ride arrived: a beat-up Department of Corrections inmate transport van with a riot gear helmet rolling around in the back.
The driver was a friendly Puerto Rican guard who introduced himself as Q. As we crossed the bridge onto the island, Q patiently answered our questions about the jail (yes, somebody managed to escape once; no, conjugal visits are not permitted) and guided us through the remaining security checkpoints. As we arrived at our destination, the Robert N. Davoren Complex, or RNDC, a call came over the radio in the van saying a suicidal inmate was threatening to jump from the fourth floor somewhere above us.
“You believe this friggin’ guy?” Q said. “Welcome to the RNDC.”
We were escorted into the office of warden Antonio Cuin, which was filled with stacks of paperwork, drawings, framed photographs, souvenirs, and boxes of spray paint. Cuin was absent, but Q assured us he would stop by later in the afternoon to check on the progress of Eine’s painting. The warden, we later learned, grew up in the Bronx with old-school graffiti writers, and has maintained an affinity for the craft.
Several prominent graffiti and street artists preceded Eine inside the RNDC at Cuin’s invitation. Their art now decorates the main yard inside the facility, including a massive work by French artist JR of an eyeball that covers the entire exterior of one building. The famed artist REVOLT also painted his name on a wall inside the jail, but the word apparently sent the wrong message to prisoners and was promptly whitewashed.
Q confiscated our cell phones and ordered us not to smoke or take pictures around the inmates or staff. He led us through the corridors of the jail, which were decorated with several small murals, including a cheesy beach scene that only served as a reminder of the glacial temperatures awaiting us outdoors. We passed through a musty gymnasium, and exited into a large grassy area surrounded by 18-foot fences topped with razor wire. It felt empty and deserted.
An enormous guard who seemed in charge of the area surrounding the gym was wearing a fur-lined trooper hat and designer sunglasses, which made him look like a taller version of Rick Ross. When he learned the artists would be working outside all day, he unleashed a booming peal of laughter.
“It’s man against God,” the guard howled. “You’re not just fighting against the canvas today but the elements and God almighty. Who will win? My money is on the artists.”
Eine quickly got down to business, sketching the word “AMAZE” across the exterior of the gymnasium in letters about 15 feet high and 5 feet wide. The artists had a hydraulic lift at their disposal, and its operator asked Eine, “Are you that anonymous British artist who paints the side of a building and suddenly it’s worth millions?”
“Nope,” Eine said. “That’s the other one.”
It was a bizarre spectacle seeing the artists paint immediately below a row of surveillance cameras and coils of barbed wire, but the vibrant red and blue piece quickly began to take shape. The artists wore latex gloves, which kept paint off their hands but also caused their fingers to go numb from the cold. Unable to feel the cap on his spray can, Julio accidentally shot a puff of bright blue paint onto his bearded chin.
“Shit,” he cursed. “I look like I just went down on a Smurf.”
The Rick Ross guard returned with a pot of hot coffee — “that prison coffee, it’ll keep you up for three days” — and entertained the artists with stories during their break. The guard reported that there are more than 200 gangs active inside the jail, including “a gang that’s not a gang” called NFL, or Neutral For Life. The RNDC is “by far the most volatile” facility on Rikers, he explained, because it is filled with teenagers.
“They come in not knowing shit about shit,” the guard said. “They just know they don’t want to be nobody’s bitch, so they fight.”
Other guards joined the conversation and began discussing inmate habits. We learned that Jerry Springer is by far the most popular TV show. (“You try to change the channel when Springer is on, your ass ’bout to go toe-up.”) We were also told that a popular makeshift meal prepared by inmates consists of canned tuna mixed with crumbled Doritos and ketchup.
“There’s always vacancy here,” one of the guards said, making a sales pitch like a real estate broker. “It’s a gated community, you’ve got 24-hour security, beachfront property, catered meals …”
But as we ate lunch (a perfectly appetizing menu of roast chicken, French fries, and cheeseburgers with wheat bread slices for buns), the artists agreed they’d rather not return to Rikers as inmates. Throughout the afternoon, we would periodically hear people screaming and wailing at the top of their lungs in nearby cellblocks. It sounded like someone was being beaten to a pulp.
To his credit, the warden seems committed to cleaning up the place. When he came to survey Eine’s painting, Cuin talked about using art as a tool for rehabilitation.
“I take it upon myself to beautify the facility,” Cuin said. “These kids come here, they look at it, they wonder how it’s done, they want to learn. It’s very creative. Instead of sitting a cell thinking about doing crime, they’re drawing. I have 500 young inmates here that are 16 to 18 years old. Why not try to change them? What better way?”
Cuin also acknowledged that he’s taking a risk by allowing graffiti artists inside the jail.
“This is the only prison that has graffiti in it,” the warden said. “This is, like, unheard of. This is career-ending — if something goes wrong, if the wrong message goes out, it could end my career. I could be done, boom, gone.”
Eine was friendly with the warden, but he clearly had mixed feelings about painting inside a facility that has housed countless graffiti artists busted by the vandal squad over the years. Instead of his own signature, he left the names of some previously incarcerated friends atop the wall. The painting is big enough that it should be visible from flights departing from La Guardia, but only inmates, guards, and prison staff will get to see the tribute up close.
“People always ask in interviews, ‘What’s the strangest place you’ve ever painted?'” Eine said, breathing a sigh of relief after leaving the island. “Going forward, I will definitely say it was this.”
In addition the piece Rikers, Eine also painted this wall at 325 West Broadway in Manhattan: