With millions of people behind the bar in America, artist Hank Willistomas is thinking about all the ideas trapped with them. “See all the wisdom and all the hearts trapped in our society,” he says.
He and his professor, Buzz Dryzinger, are co-founders of The Writing on the Wall, a project that incorporates the words of prisons and those imprisoned across prison walls. “There were a lot of poems, beauty, pictures, thoughts, and reflections of mankind,” says Dreisinger.
Dreisinger also founded the Incarceration Nations Network, a coalition of prison reformers, who teaches English at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Technically I was teaching English, but I was actually teaching criminal justice through the humanities lens. That’s The Writing on the Wall for me,” she says.
The project started on a small scale and grew to an institutional ratio by projecting those words on the sides of US and Mexican buildings.
Initially, Dreisinger and Thomas commissioned an architect to design a cell-like mobile booth with the words imprisoned on the walls, floor, and ceiling. The idea was to bring the booth to cities in the United States and Canada, but after its debut in New York, a pandemic occurred.
As the tour was canceled, the organizers came up with the idea of projecting those words onto public buildings, often buildings that are part of the criminal justice system. A company called Chemistry Creative devised a projection system. Writing on the wall was found in Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Columbus, Ohio, and Mexico City. Their last installation was the Brooklyn Public Library.
“There’s nothing I can say as an artist, or what anyone can actually do, or anything extraordinary than what these artists were doing …” says Thomas. “Some of them didn’t think of themselves as artists, but it was clear that they were.”
One of those artists, Devon Simmons, worked in a prison in New York for 15 years, graduated from a prison-to-university pipeline program, and is currently working as a paid curator and tour guide for the project.
“People in prison aren’t just talking about the problems they endure in prison, they’re talking about problems that affect everyone …” Simmons says. “It’s really powerful that Writing on the Wall is in these public places and creates dialogue to make the changes we need to see.”
In the coming weeks, The Writing on the Wall will be projected onto buildings in the East Harlem, Boise, Idaho, and San Francisco Bay Areas.