San Francisco native Gil Batle spent 20 years in five different California prisons for fraud and forgery. Behind bars he used his self-taught skills as an artist to keep him safe from gang violence by designing tattoos, portraits, and greeting cards for fellow inmates. (Batle isn’t the first inmate to use his artistic skills as a survival mechanism, like this Philadelphia man who made a gigantic contraband mural while incarcerated.)
The 53-year-old Filipino American now lives in the Philippines, where he has spent the past few years carving a 20-year prison diary into the surfaces of dozens of ostrich shells. The diary depicts his own haunting stories of prison life and those of the murderers, drug dealers, and armed robbers he served time with. “Hatched in Prison: The Art of Gil Batle” is an exhibition opening in New York City on Friday that showcases the artist’s extraordinarily meticulous work.
In prison, Batle built clandestine tattoo guns with motors from CD players or electric toothbrushes and made tattoo ink by melting chess pieces, trapping the soot in a paper bag and mixing it with shampoo or lotion.
These days, Batle’s medium of choice is the pristine surface of an ostrich egg shell. He selects a theme for each egg before penciling in the horizontal and vertical lines that allow him to frame out a grid for his designs, noting that perfect symmetry does not exist in a world where no egg is exactly the same as any other.
He then carves characters, icons, and scenes separated by images of chain-link fencing, razor wire, and handcuffs into the shells with a dentist’s drill.
At first glance, the carved eggshells could pass for ancient artifacts until you look carefully at the subject matter: suicides and stabbings, fights and race riots, cavity searches, and other trials and tribulations of prison life.
“I actually have to go back (mentally) to prison to capture that feel of being inside that place,” Batle said in a project description. “It’s a relief of gratitude when I look up from the egg and I’m reminded that I’m not in there anymore.”