Contemporary Viewpoints in a History Gallery: Photographs by Pep Williams in the special installation Behind Bars

Posted on: April 13, 2020

In 2017 photographer Pep Williams gained the opportunity to photograph inmates in Chuckawalla Valley State Prison and Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, California. Several of his resulting photos offer a “contemporary viewpoint” alongside older artifacts in the Autry’s history galleries, in the special installation Behind Bars: Incarceration in the American West. In his prison photographs, Williams portrays these men’s lives as he does any other subject, with dignity and humanity, even in a harsh setting and in the shadow of difficult pasts. He builds on a long tradition of documentary and portrait photography in places of incarceration. In Chuckawalla and Ironwood, Williams discovered both a functioning social world and individual wisdom from some of the men he met there.

Video: 

Here is Williams talking about some of his favorite images and what he hopes viewers take from the series

Williams also introduced us at the Autry to Carlos Macias, founder of Cryptic Tattoo in Azusa, California. Macias, a master of the black-and-gray style of tattooing (which was pioneered by prison artists in the 1970s), assembled a prison-style tattoo stylus or “gun,” which the museum purchased for the collection. Following standard conservation procedure, museum conservator Jennifer Kim, associate registrar Sara Ybarra, and exhibition coordinator Sarah Mitchell met with Macias to document the construction and function of the stylus. This way, future generations of museum staff will be better informed as to how to care for and display the artifact. Kim’s notes included the following:

The artist stated that the motor can come from numerous sources such as remote-control cars, or a Walkman. He prefers to use a handheld fan motor, and that is what this object is constructed from. The purple disk at the top of the motor is the front face of the fan from which he has removed all the blades. He has attached a sharpened guitar string to the purple disc to function as the inking needle. An emptied-out mechanical pencil casing is the housing for the needle and also how the tattoo gun is held. He uses a mechanical pencil so that the metal tip of the pencil casing can steady the needle as it moves. He states he can get a very good degree of control with his device. The artist stated that the batteries usually last a long time and that often on such devices the motor will fail before the battery is fully drained.

This exemplifies the professionalism with which the Autry’s Collections staff cares for some 600,000 artifacts, and the transformation of an everyday object into a historical artifact. Here is a portion of the video Macias made with Autry staff for this documentation:

Homemade Tattoo Stylus