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Artist is a prisoner of fate

Alfredo Santos has gained fame for his murals at San Quentin decades after leaving. Other pieces bring in money, but not to him.

May 09, 2008|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer
  • Alfredo Santos was sent to San Quentin State Prison in 1951 on a heroin charge.  He left his mark on the state?s oldest prison by painting 4 100-foot-long California-themed murals in the mess hall.
Alfredo Santos was sent to San Quentin State Prison in 1951 on a heroin charge.… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

His masterpiece has been on display for decades in a place no one wants to visit, admired by a rough crowd of critics who study its beauty and nuance for years on end -- or until the parole board lets them out.

Alfredo Santos was a two-bit hood when he landed in San Quentin State Prison in 1951 for selling heroin. But he left his mark on the state's oldest prison by painting a collection of nearly 100-foot-long murals in the inmate cafeteria, a flowing picture book of California's history.

These extraordinary works have won praise from the few experts who have seen them, but for years no one knew who the painter was. Santos, embarrassed by his time in San Quentin, kept silent.

He is 80 now, seeing his wildly prolific and unprofitable art career in the rearview mirror. He shuffles from one shabby San Diego rental to another, scraping by on $800 a month in Social Security. He can't afford art supplies, so he draws graceful portraits on upside-down magazine ads as he tries to figure out what to do next.

"I'm the worst businessman in the world," Santos said. His white goatee is carefully trimmed, his shirt pockmarked by unattended cigarettes. "I gave a lot of my work away. Lost so many. Got ripped off. That's what happens to artists. . . . I always said I'm not going to become famous until after I'm dead."

That's what some collectors who have been picking up his old work for pocket change are betting on.

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Santos was born in San Diego, but spent much of his childhood in Tijuana. He gravitated to art early. By the age of 8, teachers were taking note of portraits he had drawn of classmates. His father, a carpenter, taught him woodwork.

Santos also was a troublemaker. He got tossed out of high school for hitting a teacher. He enrolled in a San Diego art school, but also smuggled illegal immigrants into the United States. He got arrested and spent 18 months in federal prison.

"I was leading two lives," he said.

When Santos entered San Quentin on the heroin charge, he immediately caught a break. A leg injury landed him in the prison infirmary, where a sympathetic doctor took a liking to the young artist. He advised Santos to keep a low profile.

"He said, 'Kid, play it cool. Don't make any noise.' So I didn't make any noise," Santos said. "The first two years I was there, all I did was do art and read, do art and read. I had two cells to myself -- one for me, one for my materials."

Santos was assigned the job of filling the cafeteria's blank walls in 1953 after winning a prison art competition. He worked at night for more than two years, aided by two inmate helpers who moved scaffolding, and overseen by a single guard.

When Santos finished, the warden thanked him for dressing up the chow hall. Santos was paroled after serving four years and returned to Southern California, where he found work knocking out caricatures of tourists at Disneyland. Later, he opened a gallery in San Diego and embarked on a long career as a fine artist.

And a fine artist, Santos figured, shouldn't have a rap sheet.

Today, a scrape with the law might give an artist a boost, a dose of street cred that distinguishes him from the dilettantes, an edgy story to tell over cocktails at a gallery showing.

Did I mention I did time in San Quentin? Let me tell you about my murals. . . .

Santos told no one.

"I was ashamed. It was something to keep secret," he said. Who would rent him a studio if they knew about his incarceration. "It would be bad for business."

As the years passed, the story behind the unsigned murals disappeared from San Quentin's institutional memory.

"When they were done, it wasn't seen as important to know who painted the murals," said Lt. Sam Robinson, San Quentin's spokesman and a former death row guard. "They were done as a prison work project just to dress up the walls."

In the mid-1990s, local historians digging into San Quentin's rich past began asking: Who painted the murals? Santos tried to answer that question a few years later when he called the prison and asked if he could see his work once again.

Vernell Crittendon, San Quentin's spokesman at the time, hung up on him.

"I thought he was just a criminal," Crittendon said. "And I'm not letting a criminal into the prison unless he has an invitation from a judge."

In 2003, Santos was finally identified as the muralist, a story corroborated by retired guards who had served as models for characters. Crittendon invited Santos to San Quentin, where he was feted and given an honorary key to the joint. He provided prison officials with another mystery by taking responsibility for only four of the six murals. Who did the other, decidedly more crude paintings is unknown.

"It was nice," Santos said. "There was a big buffet. I was a celebrity for one night."

If a prison hosting an art event seems odd, think again; San Quentin may be one of the nation's most improbable art museums.

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