by Melissa Wang, JAC Intern
I send this one out
To all the homeboys down in, uh, Clinton lockdown
Rikers Island, all them dudes I was, uh, locked up with
E block, F block, lower H
N-I-C in Rikers Island
All the peoples I met along the way
Better days is comin’ homeboy, keep your head up
“Better Dayz” by Tupac ft. Mr. Biggs
“The words to this song is my life.”
Creativity runs in Daniel Martinez’s family. When he was young, his older brother Jesse would bring him drawing supplies, showing him new artistic techniques. His cousin taught him and his other brother Tommy how to tattoo, working with a homemade tattoo gun on orange Gatorade lids. One of Daniel’s sisters also grew up to be an amazing artist. In ninth grade, his art teacher told him, “If it wasn’t for you, I would quit my job.” Daniel looked around and realized he was the only one drawing – everyone else was goofing off. “That stuck with me until this day,” he says.
In and out of prison his whole life, and now serving a ten-year federal prison term, Daniel has continued to create. Artistic collaboration flourishes inside, where Daniel has picked up new styles and ways to be creative from other artists. He calls art his “escape in a place like this…medicine to my soul.” With over 1000 pieces created for other incarcerated folks and their loved ones, he reflects on how good it feels to “put a smile on someone’s face” as well as how “art can reunite a relationship.” Art is heart-song for both maker and viewer.
His drawings, for example, are the only method he has to communicate with his daughter. “I love my daughter so much but all I have to give is my art…I’ve only watched her grow through my drawings. I don’t know what to really write on her drawings, all I know is that me drawing pictures of her helps me make wise choices…She’s my everything, she’s all I live for.”
“Sometimes God doesn’t change our trails, but instead changes us in the midst of the trails.”
Throughout the chapters of Daniel’s life, some violent and others fragmented, art has remained a constant, accompanying him through his personal changes. Having lost his father at four years old, so young he didn’t even know to cry at the funeral, Daniel was raised along with his five siblings by his single mother. His family slept on the “hard, cold wooden floor with blankets.” He wore only hand-me-downs and blamed his mother for the shame it brought him at school. “I would blame her for everything,” he writes. “I was wrong for it. I regret it.”
As a child, Daniel didn’t understand why they always had to walk home after grocery shopping, or why he had to carry the heavy gallons of milk. “It brings tears to my eyes as I’m writing this now,” says Daniel while recounting how he used to complain and make her life harder, not realizing that his mother was bone-tired and struggling.
Anger built in him as he was made fun of for his worn shoes, and he fought other kids at elementary school, especially those of other races. Toys were too expensive, so the only things he had to play with were coloring books and pencils. By high school, drawing had become an everyday routine, more interesting and engaging than classwork. Simultaneously, Daniel had also joined a gang.
Because his mother worked graveyard shifts, his apartment at night was full of his friends and other gang members, including his cousin, a tattoo artist. While on juvenile house arrest, he received his first tattoo, and from then on, got countless more. “I loved the art,” he writes. “Art, period, was my passion.”
Throughout high school, however, he continued to participate in gang activities, getting his family evicted multiple times. “I was never there to even help her, or my family, move all the boxes. I was out in the streets being selfish. I had LBPD break down my mother’s door at 4 AM. I had her go through so much…I was lost.” Even during times when Daniel was just hanging around with his friends, the police had it out for him. Over-policed and constantly surveilled, Daniel and his friends were brutalized by cops who had arrived to deal with a neighbor’s problem, just for sitting around.
The police blindly tasered the people in the apartment, and Daniel notes that two people were struck and “dropped to the floor screaming.” Singled out by the cops, Daniel was cuffed while four officers took turns stomping on his back and punching and kicking him. It felt like his lungs were collapsed, and it was only thanks to a passerby ambulance worker who stepped in that he was taken to the hospital. After the incident, there was no one to coach him through legal proceedings; instead, he turned to art.
In response to the attack, he drew a cop car being shot up, with the words “fuck pigs.” The police officers later returned, found the drawing, and began to target him even more. At that moment, he thought back to an encounter with his tenth-grade history teacher.
Although deprived of a father figure from a young age, Daniel recounts the importance of having someone who believed in him. In tenth grade, Daniel drew a picture of an armed man standing over four dead bodies, depicting the ways in which the world presented itself to him. “I would draw in class so much the teachers would…tell me to put it away. High school is where drawing really started to be in my everyday life.” It just so happened that his history teacher noticed Daniel’s drawing and asked to meet him after class to discuss the contents of the artwork.
His teacher asked him if his home life was alright, if there was anything he wanted to talk about. Daniel didn’t understand the concern. The teacher pointed at the man holding the gun in the drawing and asked who he was. It was then that Daniel processed all the red colored pencil he had used for the dead bodies and realized he was in trouble.
Instead of punishing Daniel for the violent drawing, the teacher had his next period class wait outside as he talked to Daniel about changing his life. “He cared about me and kept my drawing in his hand. He ripped it in front of me and threw it away. He promised not to call the principal,” remembers Daniel. As long as Daniel promised to let the teacher check up on him periodically about changing his life, and as long as he promised not to draw things like that again, the teacher would not report him.
“I wish I had listened to him,” reflects Daniel on the situation with his drawing of police. The teacher transferred schools shortly after Daniel’s tenth grade.
Coincidentally, however, Daniel frequently skipped all his classes except art class to “catch three busses to make it to Lakewood High School.” It was the only way he could see the girl he liked. He didn’t expect, one day, to lock eyes with that history teacher in the classrooms of Lakewood. At that very moment, the teacher paused his class to ask Daniel how he’d been. He asked Daniel if he was still drawing.
Although the teacher asked Daniel to come back after school to talk, Daniel ditched the meeting to spend time with the girl he liked. “I never had the chance to thank him for caring. He was a good man and cared for his students. Thank you for caring,” Daniel writes now.
Since then, Daniel has gone through great personal change. Now out of the gang life, he is focused on fatherhood and publishing his own biography, passing down a lineage of care threaded through his family growing up to his partner and daughter now. “As you see,” he says, “all my artwork used to be about violence but in today’s life they’re all about love and my daughter.” He asked Justice Arts Coalition to share a message of gratitude: “I would like to thank my future wife, Shauna. We have our ups and downs. I understand how hard it has been for you, but no matter what you are still here. Eight years locked up and I have never been without, because of you. I love you.”
Daniel also expressed appreciation for Jayme, the JAC volunteer he corresponds with, saying, “Every letter you send me becomes another stepping stone in my art life. Not only do you speak highly about my artwork, but you also take the time to check on my well-being. Your words describe my art in ways I’ve never heard before. You motivate me to see my own artwork as if the world needs to see them.” Finally, he thanked President Biden for choosing a woman as a vice president. “Women to me mean power and I see her making changes for everyone. She just made history.”
His passion for art and for creating these networks of care and gratitude are deeply intertwined; since those little orange Gatorade lids, his creative practice has followed him through his personal transformations. Acknowledging his prejudiced attitudes in the past, he now says that he “grew out of that hate against other races. A lot of people say racism will never go away. I strongly believe that is wrong because I grew out of it. I would like to take this moment to apologize to everyone, or anyone, I have ever hurt in life.” His story exemplifies the ability of the human character to evolve, grow, and move toward better futures.