“On The Inside”: Queer Prisoners Find Freedom In Art

"I hope people realize the enormous amount of talent, complexity and culture of LGBTQ people within prison."

A new art exhibit in New York is shedding a light on the LGBT prisoners, who face a greater risk of physical and sexual violence and are less likely to receive support from friends and family.

“On the Inside” is the culmination of a years-long-project by Tatiana von Fürstenberg, daughter of designer Diane von Fürstenberg. It presents a diverse array of works, both in style and subject matter.


Some pieces are religious while others are explicitly sexual. There are depictions of Hillary Clinton, Rihanna and Tupac, as well as nameless couples, portraits and many works that explore gender identity.

Steve S
Steve S/"Acceptance"
Bruce/"All Woman Half the Time"

The inmates were limited in terms of materials—mostly single sheets of paper, dull pencils and ball-point pen ink tubes. (The hard plastic shells are deemed too “dangerous.) One artist used an asthma inhaler with Kool Aid to achieve an airbrushed technique on an illustration of Marilyn Monroe.


While the art is not for sale, visitors to the exhibition can text the artists through a transcription service or even begin a pen-pal relationship.

Fürstenberg received more than 4,000 submissions, 450 of which appear in the show.

Per the show’s press release:

Through the lens of art, we on the outside have the opportunity to bear witness to the suffering and also celebrate the resilience of the artists who are locked up.

The art on these walls demonstrates the ability of those who are suffering to still create beauty. Each of these pieces tells a story and these are stories we must listen to.

Like the artwork itself, the captions offer insight into the lives of these prisoners.

“I have been stripped of all my property, clothing, mat… and left to sleep on a steel bunk in 30-degree weather,” writes Felicity. “I’ve been harassed time and time again for my identity, being a flamboyant fem gay. But still I stand, I won’t bend and I won’t break.”

On the Inside

“I just can’t understand why our proud American culture is accepting of our inhumane, undignified prison system,” writes Tony W. “It is insane to treat people horribly for years, then return them to society. I’ve become wise, yet pissed off.”

Some reveal a surprisingly rich personal life behinds bars.

Jim S "Cynosure"

“I had several relationships in prison and had the best sex I can possibly imagine,” wrote Cheyenne. “My favorite part of the day was lockdown. We would make out until the count, that’s when the real fun started.”

Von Fürstenberg got the idea for the show after coming across Black and Pink, an LGBT prisoner support group.

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 06:  Tatiana von Furstenberg attends Valerie Von Sobel Presents 1st Exhibition and private dinner at Voila! Gallery on February 6, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Joe Kohen/Getty Images)
Joe Kohen/Getty Images

“My dad was gay,” she told the Daily Beast of her father Egon von Fürstenberg. “He had a lot of internalized homophobia early on, and had a really hard time coming out to me initially. He got better with it. Growing up in the fashion world meant I was basically raised by the LGBTQ community entirely. They were the only people I could really relate to.”

She has empathy for the inmates she worked with, many of whom were victim of circumstance or rejected by their community.


“The misconception created by the media is to make everyone in jail seem really dangerous,” she says, “when in fact the prison population would be massively reduced if they decriminalized sex work, or stopped arresting under-18s, or stopped jailing people for the technical violations of probation. A lot of crime is poverty-incited.”

While the art stands on its own, von Fürstenberg wants to remind viewers of the inmates’ humanity.

“What I hope is that people realize the enormous amount of talent, complexity, and culture of LGBTQ people within prison. You can’t stereotype and forget them. I want people to be wowed by the quality of the work, and the voices of these people to be heard.”

On The Inside is view at the Abrons Arts Centre in New York until December 18.


Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.