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Prison Art

In my earlier, single days I traveled with two fellow photographers without any agendas, itineraries or even an idea of where we were sleeping on any given night.   We selected a destination, rented a car and hit the road with our Canons and Nikons.  We always found adventures filled with interesting people and came home with great stories and images to match.  But this vacation was different. It was all about relaxing.  Celebrating the end of an era with Cucina Rosa, my Guy lay sprawled in a blue lounge chair at the pool’s edge with a Pina colada in one hand, a mystery novel in the other and a smile on his face.  He was in heaven.

When planning for the trip, it was a choice between the minimalist, rustic huts on the water (my choice) and the all-inclusive resort – complete with – well, just about anything you would desire.   But, after seeing the look on Guy’s face when I said, “the huts are adorable, but…no TV, room service and possibly no AC”, I knew we were heading to the all-inclusive world of Barcelo Maya.  And it was wonderful and beautiful and relaxing.

While we did venture out on some group excursions, I longed to get one of those beat up Mexican rental cars and head to the local jungle towns on Rivera Maya where we could hang out at a local beach bar listening to the rhythmic Mexican music.  Meet the locals and pretend we lived there was what I had in mind, but it wasn’t meant to be.

So seven days later we were heading back to reality traveling the 90 miles back to the Cancun airport.  In reality, our plane was broken (seriously, the door was falling off and needed special screws), the parts were somewhere in Colorado and the Philadelphia airport was closed due to a major snowstorm.    I was beginning to feel like Tom Hanks as we spent the next 2 days in this crowded, hot airport with overpriced food.  Dressed for our winter arrival back home, Guy read a book, sweating, while I did my part to boost up the Mexican economy.  I wandered through every trinket shop often passing by a  cubical-size store with the sign “Prison Art”.  The skull painted on the sign told me this was not my kind of shop and I kept walking.

After the 5th gate change and again the false promise that we would leaving shortly, I found myself sitting and waiting next to the prison store.  But, in the window were the most beautiful leather bags – handbags, purses, wallets, cases.  I now was curious and went in.  In this tiny space that smelled of leather, I was surrounded by colorful images all etched on these bags.  There were designs of fish, exotic animals, Asian women, and yes, skulls.  They were works of art – all beautiful and expensive.

A young man, decorated in tattoos, with large holes in his ears adorned with gold rings, spoke softly and kindly.  “It’s prison art”, he told me.  I guess I looked perplexed and he went on.  “The prisoners here in Mexico tattoo these bags and all the proceeds go to less fortunate families and children living in Mexico.  We are a non-profit organization trying to help others.”  I then realized, in this small booth in the Cancun airport, I found the connection that I was looking for with the local people.  And I left with two precious souvenirs.  DSCF1216featured

You may visit Prison Art’s website at