Locked up in a 6-by-8-foot cell at the Utah State Prison, Patricio Toledo was haunted by demons. Not knowing what else to do, he began to draw in an effort to grasp a lifeline—hoping to purge the ill feelings and free himself from his past and the prison walls around him.
Patrick, as he likes to be called, found that his ink drawings did more than keep him from going insane. His art gave him hope and the will to go on. And if he makes it on the outside this time, it will be because it gives him purpose, too.
“At first, it feels like your heart’s being ripped out of your chest,” he recalls of being locked up. “It’s hell. At one point I thought I’d actually died and was in hell.”
At his lowest ebb, Patrick began to find deliverance by scribbling on the backs of envelopes. “In time, I focused my anger and my energy on paper. I began to look forward to it. I’d wake up waiting to draw.”
Now 31 and on his third parole, Patrick wants desperately to succeed—to hold a job, sell his art, stay out of prison. In 1994, he was convicted for distribution of a controlled substance (cocaine) and auto theft.
Some of the images Patrick puts on paper are frightening. They came from a young man in the bowels of prison haunted by images of cruelty. “Sometimes the designs in my head would make me put them on paper. Because after that, it’s done, it’s out of my brain.”
“Twisted,” is the name of one of Patrick’s pieces. “It’s about incarceration,” he explains somberly. “Being locked down in such a small place makes you go stir crazy. It’s like living in a small bathroom of steel and cinderblock.”
Although Patrick wasn’t a member of any specific gang, he did business with a number of them. He doesn’t want to name names; it wouldn’t be a good idea, he says. Gang members do what they have to do. But in prison, he watched many tough young gangsters lose hope after being committed for long sentences.
“One of my pictures deals with gangs. How I see it is that they are evil. The gangs that are selling drugs are involved in the destruction of lives. It’s evil,” he explains while pointing out various aspects of one of his drawings. “I dealt with a lot of youngsters who went in there for homicide. They are going to spend the rest of their lives in there. I don’t know if that’s why I drew it. But that’s the message.”
Prison is a hopeless place, Patrick says. Once incarcerated, many inmates lose the belief they can ever succeed on the outside. “My first two paroles, I didn’t have any plan. I just wanted to see my family and go back [to prison]. It’s an institutionalized mentality.”
But this time, he insists, things are different. “I drew every day for a year to get out and do my drawing. It is my desire to use my art. I feel like I can do something. Life isn’t over for me yet. I want to show people that I can be productive and give something back to the world.”
It’s a tough row to hoe for an ex-con. But Patrick is no stranger to challenges. In prison, he drew on whatever he could find. Friends would retrieve paper from the wastebasket for him. He would draw on anything, including the backs of official prison forms. “I used to use applications. I would smuggle the paper, sneak it in my jacket and pray to God the cops didn’t find it.”
After guards had confiscated some of his drawings, Patrick began sketching his work in sections on the backs of envelopes, then mailing them out to friends and family. Some of his works consist of as many as a dozen envelopes.
“At one time, I had gotten paranoid about the cops and the shakedowns,” he remembers with a troubled expression. “I was awakened early one morning and they tore up all my art.”
It was a painful experience—one that has stuck with him. “It isn’t right for people to take someone else’s property. It was a lesson,” he said thoughtfully.
Whether on scratch paper, envelopes or more expensive paper, Patrick takes his work seriously. While incarcerated, he discovered he had to create his own pens, too. “I used to convert Bic pens. The ink is good but the balls get sticky and then they’re no good.” Patrick solved the problem by hybridizing the Bic ink into a Pentel ballpoint, he explained. Necessity is the mother of invention.
Patrick saw art on clothing and on skateboards. He dreamt that his work could be just as popular. He hoped that one day he would see his drawings walking down the street on a T-shirt. Patrick became so devoted to drawing, he didn’t leave his cell even when he had the opportunity. “Sometimes I would stay in my cell and draw. It would keep me out of trouble,” he says, referring to the always-changing prison environment.
Paper is not the only medium for Patrick’s penmanship, however. On the inside, tattooing is as big as it is on the outside. Patrick took to the art form quickly, building his own tattoo gun from materials accessible inside the prison walls. “I like to tattoo a large piece of skin. I like to make a statement,” he said proudly. “People make the mistake of getting a whole lot of small tattoos. I recommend one large mural by one artist.”
Hopefully, Patrick’s tattoo work will be on the outside from now on. But how does a young artist make it after five years of prison in one of the most competitive fields, commercial art? Patrick is hopeful, but first things first—he got a job doing bodywork at a local trucking firm. That will give him an income and keep his parole officer happy. In the meantime, he’s trying to hawk his art around town, hoping he’ll get that lucky break.
Whether his work sells or not, there can be no doubt Patrick is an artist in the true sense of the word. His art has transformed him and set him free.