Mexican inmates use tattoo skills for purse designs

A bag is displayed at a Prison Art store in the upscale neighbourhood of Polanco, Mexico City, on June 14.
A bag is displayed at a Prison Art store in the upscale neighbourhood of Polanco, Mexico City, on June 14.PHOTO: AFP
Detail of a bag displayed at a Prison Art store in the upscale neighbourhood of Polanco, Mexico City, on June 14.
Detail of a bag displayed at a Prison Art store in the upscale neighbourhood of Polanco, Mexico City, on June 14.PHOTO: AFP
Bags are displayed at a Prison Art store in the upscale neighbourhood of Polanco, Mexico City, on June 14.
Bags are displayed at a Prison Art store in the upscale neighbourhood of Polanco, Mexico City, on June 14.PHOTO: AFP
Products are displayed in the window of a Prison Art store at the upscale neighbourhood of Polanco, Mexico City, on June 14.
Products are displayed in the window of a Prison Art store at the upscale neighbourhood of Polanco, Mexico City, on June 14.PHOTO: AFP
A bag is displayed at a Prison Art store in the upscale neighbourhood of Polanco, Mexico City, on June 14.
A bag is displayed at a Prison Art store in the upscale neighbourhood of Polanco, Mexico City, on June 14.PHOTO: AFP

TULANCINGO DE BRAVO (AFP) - Sitting in a Mexican prison's library, murder convict David Guzman tattooed a skull on a leather patch for a designer handbag to be sold in a luxury shop.

Guzman, 34, took drugs and stole at a young age, falling into a "nefarious" world that landed him in prison, but five years into his murder sentence, he appeared at peace as he drew the skeletal figure.

His work is part of a rehabilitation project called Prison Art, which pays inmates to draw designs for purses that sell for US$400 (S$536.4) at high-end stores in Mexico City and other towns.

Guzman lobbied to bring the project to the Tulancingo prison, in central Hidalgo state, where several other inmates use makeshift tattoo ink needles to paint birds, butterflies, tigers and, especially, skulls on leather patches.

"My stubbornness was due to my need" to care for two children, the slim convict said as he sat with a dozen male and female inmates making designs in the prison library.

The prisoners, young and old, usually work on their bunk beds in dormitories that hold up to 100 people, or sitting on plastic containers in communal spaces in a prison ranked fifth worst for overcrowding and insalubrity by the National Human Rights Commission.

They use home-made tattooing equipment made out of a pen, a needle and little motor powered by a cellphone charger. The inmates use the same apparatus to tattoo their skin, despite the health risks.

"This makes the days shorter. I don't even know what time it is," said Ezequiel Perez, a 24-year-old whose muscular arms are covered in tattoos.

"I have breakfast, I eat lunch and I do this the rest of the day," said Perez, who is serving time for a double murder.

Eighteen inmates were chosen at the Tulancingo penitentiary to participate in Prison Art. The only condition for taking part in the project, which was created by a private foundation, is to stay off drugs, attend detox therapy and give half the earnings to relatives.

Most of the prison's 550 inmates work in the carpentry and craft shops, but they struggle to sell their creations on the outside. They need money to buy soap, toothpaste or toilet paper.

But Prison Art pays inmates up to US$400 per month for several patches of leather and puts them in a re-insertion program that can lead to a job outside making the purses once they are released.

"My family often doesn't have anything to give me. This is a source of work," said Leonor Reyes, a 48-year-old embroiderer and mother of six, in jail for stealing jewellery.

Jorge Cueto, the creator of Prison Art, served 11 months in a western Mexican prison in 2012 on fraud charges until he was found innocent and released.

Prison Art is now more than two years old, employing 240 inmates in six penitentiaries.

"Mexican prisons are not crime universities. It is society that's forcing young men who come out to return to crime because they lack opportunities, which also makes them easy recruiting targets for organised crime groups inside prison," said Cueto, a Mexican of Spanish origin.

The handbags are sold in the capital's ritzy Polanco district, the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende and the Caribbean coast resort of Playa del Carmen, as well as on the internet.

Now Cueto plans to go international and open shops in the United States, London and the Spanish island of Ibiza.

"Society has the option of helping. The idea is to have a product of such quality and taste that people will want it," he said.

Back in the Tulancingo prison library, Pedro Eulalio Vera, an accused kidnapper, put the finishing touches to a design.

"If people like it, maybe they'll say, 'I want him to do something special for me.' And, for me, this would be something great, no?" Vera said.