Handkerchief art shares stylistic characteristics with lowrider art, tattoo art, graffiti and mural art, and other contemporary and predominately Hispanic or Chicano art forms – all of which borrow from, and enrich, one another. A handkerchief lends itself as an especially useful medium for prisoners. The fabric is relatively cheap and has “bite” that takes ink and color much like more expensive linen canvas. Unlike paintings on canvas or drawings made on pieces of rigid illustration board, both of which are difficult to wrap and expensive to mail, paños fold into a regular envelope and are easily mailed with only one stamp. Prison authorities seldom censor artwork. Nurses, priests or others who serve the prison community can place a pañuelo into a pocket or purse and benignly smuggle it out. The person who receives it can sew the handkerchief onto a pillow, pin it to a wall or corkboard, or frame it for more formal display. The artist also may establish a commercial relationship with an agent who sells the artwork on his behalf, or with a collector who buys the work from the artist by sending payment to his account at the prison or to his family back home.
By far, the most popular religious image drawn on the handkerchiefs is the Virgin of Guadalupe framed in an aura of radiating light. In most cases artists copy depictions of the Virgin from patterns, but some are highly personalized and symbolic. Prisoners occasionally put themselves into the drawing with the Virgin. In an unsigned example, an artist drew a self-portrait of a chained prisoner within a keyhole beneath the praying hands of the Virgin. Both chains and keyholes symbolize imprisonment
Roses often surround the Virgin and fill the white space with color. The artist will lose himself in time as he sits on the bed in his cell, carefully detailing and shading the rose petals. Former inmate Paul Young had a theory about why an artist will spend so much time on each rose, “Art is a right-side brain activity. When you unconsciously shift into this right brain work, you become completely oblivious to things around you. All noise, not just white noise. The second thing is that you become oblivious to time. You can spend three hours on this detail work and if someone asks you how much time you had been working on it, you cannot tell them.”
In one example, an artist depicted a watchful eye – perhaps that of the artist himself? – along with the Virgin and other elements in a drawing of two women, one in a massive sombrero. In paño art, women are invariably young and voluptuous, with voluminous hair and even bigger breasts. The same artist, Ruben Torres Magallon, extended those attributes to the Virgin in a daring depiction of her body artfully draped with a cloak of stars. The impish figure beneath her implies that the Devil made Magallon do it!
A powerful image in pañuelo art is the head of Christ in agony. Perhaps empathizing with the suffering of Jesus, an anonymous artist in one example emphasized the tears and blood on the face of Christ, whose forehead is crowned with exaggerated thorns. Understandably, prison artists seldom choose to depict Christ dying on the cross. A more comforting and hopeful image is that of Christ as a shepherd. In the traditional style of a devotional retablo, a prisoner drew a standing figure of Jesus holding an image of St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate and lost causes. An invocation fills the entire right side of the pañuelo drawn by the unidentified artist. He evokes his own situation in recounting in the text that Judas is honored and forgiven, despite his betrayal of Jesus.
Saint Martin de Porres, from Lima and the New World’s first black saint, has become an increasingly important religious figure in North America. He is revered because of his devotion to the sick and for his miraculous cures. On one unsigned pañuelo, the saint offers a cup to the lips of a man in need. While Saint Martin has risen slowly in importance, Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary leader who fought for land reform and social justice, has skyrocketed to a status of popular cultural icon. Vendors plaster his mustached face or erect figure crossed with ammunition belts, on T-shirts and a host of everyday objects. A pañuelo artist named A. Hinojosa captured the high degree to which Tejanos, at least, revere Zapata by granting him equal standing with the Virgin on a heavenly Mexican Flag.