First published: Spring 2016
Sculptures are three dimensional. Drawings, generally speaking, are flat. Bas-reliefs may be both: thickened drawings with edges and shadows. An exhibit label years ago at the American Museum of Natural History, for pre-historic drawings surface-carved onto antlers by the slight removal of surrounding background material, described relief sculptures as probably the first sculptures. A suspect proposition never forgotten. As if the genesis of three-dimensional art stemmed from drawings that stood up like the ink blots reconstituted into dancing characters in early Max Fleischer cartoons. While this theoretical pre-history ignores shaped and molded icons, including the Venus of Willendorf and Cycladic figures, there certainly are a lot of relief carvings that have lasted since antiquity, despite their number having been recently reduced by imbecilic destruction at the hands of religious psychopaths.
One feature of relief art from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and others of more recent vintage, like wall sculpture in 1930s American post offices, Rockefeller Center, and bronze war memorials throughout Europe, is the narrative arc of so many. Like very sturdy comic books or graphic novels, carved and cast reliefs were frequently utilised for telling stories and are often sequential artworks that unfold in time.
Small surprise, then, that the foundation for the narrative art of Gil Batle was enriched by the comic book drawings of Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Frank Frazetta and Robert Crumb. Dreaming of comic stardom like millions of American boys, Batle, now aged 54, was born and raised in San Francisco by Filipino parents exactly when Zap Comix were coming hot off the local presses, but he took a decidedly different artistic path.
Drawing for the other kids in a California Youth Authority lockup; hand-pricking initiation tattoos on teen gang members and decorating their iconographic jackets; air-brushing Chevy low-riders and painting murals for restaurants around the Bay area; illustrating a weekly newsletter with caricatures of fellow inmates in the San Mateo County Jail; and drawing his own traveller’s checks and doctoring money orders, which led inevitably to successive incarcerations in five different California prisons over a 20-year period for fraud and forgery. Batle left that world behind in 2008 to move to Marinduque, a small island in the Philipines.
Batle’s self-taught drawing ability evolved behind bars into sophisticated, clandestine tattooing skills that protected him from the institutionalised gang violence in prisons like San Quentin, Chuckawalla and Jamestown (“Gladiator School,” as it’s known to the unfortunate cognoscenti). Where Bloods, Crips and Aryan Brotherhood gang-bangers in racially segregated cell-blocks rule with intimidation, threat and force, Batle’s facility for drawing was prized by the murderers, drug dealers, and armed robbers whose stories he now recounts in minutely-carved detail on fragile ostrich egg shells. With only the men’s names, as he says, “changed to protect the guilty.”
As Batle recounts, “The prison ‘artist’ was a commodity. He was like a magician. Even the toughest convicts were in awe at the artist’s skills. I was that commodity. The ability to draw, my age and the fact that I was good at faking it [toughness]... Call it performance art... is how I was able to survive behind those walls. Nothing I’m proud of, but funny when I think of it now. I did tattoos inside. Not daily, and I have to say that my skin art doesn’t compare to my drawing patterns that I could sell in the joint. I drew daily. Mostly tattoo patterns and portraits of family members on the outside. I would have the inmate pose for a sketch and include them in a family photo they had in possession, as if the inmate were there with them in the final drawing. I was pretty good at it too.”
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #89