In 2006 two men dressed in black suits walked into Centro Cultural Aztlán, a modest art gallery located in the design district near the historic Old Spanish Trail in San Antonio. The men walked to the offices tucked away in the back of the deco building, where they confronted Centro’s executive director, Malena Gonzalez-Cid.

“Are you selling art on behalf of prisoners?” one of them asked her. She looked at them, startled and confused. The men pressed Gonzalez-Cid, informing her that they were from the Texas attorney general’s office. They told her that prisoners are their property, and inmates can’t make money outside of their system. Did she know that acting as their dealer was against the law?

It eventually clicked for Gonzalez-Cid. They were talking about the paños, the handkerchiefs that prisoners decorate with black ballpoint pens or colored pencils—or, in a pinch, with coffee beans, ash, and even egg yolk (it makes a nice yellow color).

But to her, paños were a form of artistic expression—and that’s her trade. In Gonzalez-Cid’s 26 years working at Centro, she has helped turn the small nonprofit into a bastion for the Hispanic arts community. In 1978, one year after it was founded, Centro organized San Antonio’s first annual Díade los Muertos event, which has since grown into a major celebration of the tradition that includes setting up altars and ofrendas all over the city. The nonprofit sponsors the city’s popular annual Lowrider Festival, and it routinely hosts programming that promotes Hispanic culture and art, including exhibits, a mole throwdown, and the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza. Gonzalez-Cid had been selling paños for about five years, not realizing she was breaking the law. (Never mind that Centro is housed in the same building as a division of the San Antonio police department.) She finally conceded to her unintentional black-market folk-art enterprise, and the men in the black suits let her off easy, asking that she stop selling the hankies.

“It was like a scene out of a movie,” Gonzalez-Cid said incredulously, able to laugh it off in hindsight. “They were serious.”

A Paño in blue, purple, and red or three women. Paño artist: Esteban Ochoa. Photograph by Josh Huskin.

The first known paños date back to the thirties, when Hispanic prisoners in Texas and throughout the Southwest began tearing up small strips of bed sheets and pillowcases to draw on them. (Prison officials ultimately caught on and began offering cheap handkerchiefs in order to preserve their linens.) The paño, which translates to “cloth,” started as a way for prisoners to communicate with each other and with the outside world. The messages can be tender, like the birthday paño with flowers, birthdate, and name on it that Gonzalez-Cid received from her husband a couple of years ago, when he was in a federal immigration detention center. Or it can be nefarious—the pendejo three cells down who receives a paño with a two-headed snake on it (the symbol for a snitch) might have just been issued his death sentence. Paños can also represent gang affiliation, and religious iconography is a very popular subject matter.

In the decades since they first cropped up, paños have become less utilitarian and more a vehicle for highly elaborate and deeply personal art, making them a fit for exhibitions throughout the world. Some paño makers cut the cloth into shapes—ovals, stars, a cross—and fray the edges, which they then meticulously braid back together using other materials, like elastic from socks, to make a pattern resembling a doily.

This incredible and painstaking attention to detail—and outpouring of emotion— captured the attention of Rudy Padilla, a youth development professional from New Mexico. Padilla first saw paños at neighbors’ houses in Barelas, in the Albuquerque inner city. He began collecting the small cloths around 1991, immersed himself in the subculture, and became an authority on the subject. In the mid-nineties, the National Museum of American History solicited Padilla’s insight on paños and in the process acquired some pieces from his collection. Padilla also introduced paños to a TV audience, when he introduced Evangeline Griego, a Los Angeles filmmaker from New Mexico, to the art form. In 1996 Griego’s fascination led her to make Paño Arte: Images from Inside, a 31-minute documentary that was broadcast on PBS. For her film, she visited the infamous New Mexico State Penitentiary, the site of a heinous riot in 1980, and interviewed prisoners as well as their families, putting a face on paños.

“The paño is a reminder that ‘I’m relevant, I’m still here. I’ve got these human feelings even though I’m locked up,’” Griego said.

In the process, Griego learned several nuances about this insular underworld. For one, paños aren’t typically framed and hanged by the families who receive them, like in a gallery. Instead, they are treated as keepsakes, usually folded and archived, perhaps in a box, or bound together by the year. Paños often aren’t signed by their creators, which is perhaps attributed to the fact that paños are created by a relatively small community of artistic prisoners who many times are commissioned by fellow prisoners to make pieces in exchange for things like cigarettes, shampoo, and even immunity from other prisoners. Sometimes the artist makes a template, a copia, for others to trace and maybe embellish with their own touch.

“You see some of these paños—I mean, Escher couldn’t have done better,” Griego said.

Griego’s documentary helped launch a paño fascination among art collectors. Reno Leplat-Torti, a young French Renaissance man who dabbles in art, music, and film, became an avid collector, amassing more than two hundred paños, mostly from California. (His collection can be seen at, including this paño from 1934 featuring a poem titled “Prison Love,” signed by an inmate calling himself “Cannon-Ball.”)

A few of Leplat-Torti’s paños will be in the “Tattooists, Tattooed” exhibition opening in May at Quai Branly, a folk-art museum in Paris. This follows last year’s fifty-fifth Venice Biennale, which displayed paños belonging to Martha Henry and David Joralemon, two New York-based art collectors.

Ed Jordan, a folk-art collector from Austin, became aware of paños in the late eighties while working as an art instructor at Blinn College’s Bastrop campus, which happened to be located in the federal prison there. (Yes, you read that correctly—for about a decade, Blinn College, whose main campus is in Brenham, offered satellite classes to inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution, in Bastrop.) When the program ended in the mid-nineties, Jordan said he was told to “trash, burn, or take home any leftover art, supplies, and so on.” He brought everything home and donated most of the supplies to local charities. He stayed in touch with former students, who helped him acquire 63 paños. From August to October of last year, the Austin nonprofit Texas Folklife displayed some of them in the exhibition, “Paño Art: Handkerchief Drawings from Texas Prisons.”

It would appear the hip art scene has become enamored of the savage soft side. Considering the popularity of tattoos, and how intertwined paño art is with tattoos, it makes sense. Plus, the curious ways of acquiring paños is half the fun for the collector.

Paño art: Luis A. Martinez. Photograph by Josh Huskin.

Centro Cultural Aztlán inherited the paños-for-sale program from Kathy Vargas, the visual arts director for the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, a San Antonio nonprofit founded in 1980 to promote contemporary Hispanic culture and arts. Vargas had sold the paños in the gift shop since the early nineties. She got them from Alex Rubio, the current artist in residence at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum and a former instructor in the Bexar County jail arts program.

Vargas filtered the proceeds back into the prisoners’ commissary accounts, creating not only an income stream for them but also a way for prisoners to get recognized for their art. When Vargas left the Guadalupe Center around 2000 to become a photography professor at the University of the Incarnate Word, she was part of an exodus of staff. This exodus was unsettling to her and prompted her to gift the paños to Centro.

“The sales went on for years and nobody said anything,” Gonzalez-Cid said.

But then the political climate changed. According to a report this past November on an NPR’s Latino U.S.A., paños are now illegal in Texas jails. Hard-nosed policies regarding prisoner freedoms proliferated under Governor George W. Bush and Governor Rick Perry, virtually eradicating the enrichment programs funded by Governor Ann Richards during the early nineties, which had helped spawn a golden age of paño-making in Texas.

“After Governor Richards’s term, art rehab classes in prison were closed and making paños wasn’t allowed,” Henry, the New York art collector who was cited in the NPR report, told me in an email.

Jail arts programs were largely responsible for making paños culturally significant. And Bexar County was at the forefront of this movement.

“Bexar County had an amazing jail arts program,” said Glenna Parks, a former instructor during the time the photographer Richard Avedon visited the jail and took shots for his book In the American West. “There was nothing like what Bexar County had going for it.”

In 1979 Bexar County hired Parks to teach English and poetry, and during her tenure at the jail, she also taught studio arts. It was in these classes that the inmates taught her about paños. After seeing what these prisoners were creating, she decided to help focus their energies on honing their work. First, she wanted to get her students to make their art on fabric that was not their bed sheets, whether it be purchased handkerchiefs or free fabrics offered in her class. And then, as the quality of work improved, she aimed to get their art acknowledged. As luck would have it, one of Parks’s former professors at the University of California, San Diego, knew about an exhibition, “The Prison Show: Realities and Representations,” being presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, and put Parks in touch with one of the curators. When the show opened in 1981, some of the paños by Bexar County inmates were included. The positive reception to her students’ work later landed Parks an opportunity to write a chapter on paños for the book Folk Art in Texas, published in 1985 by the Texas Folklore Society to celebrate the Texas sesquicentennial.

A paño of a blue unicorn. Paño art: Marcelino Martinez. Photograph by Josh Huskin.

If paños are illegal in Texas jails, some of the prisoners didn’t get the memo. Platon Cruz Torres, 31, has made well over one hundred paños. The Dallas advocacy group Hope for Peace and Justice has even exhibited some of his pieces, thanks to a pen pal relationship that one of their board of directors, DeSorrow Golden, formed with him.

Torres is a prisoner in the McConnell Unit, one of two units in Beeville, about halfway between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. McConnell is notorious for its gang activity and for having some of the most hardened criminals in the Texas prison system. Torres was incarcerated in 2005 for aggravated robbery and is slated for release in 2035, according to his site.

Through a series of letters written to Texas Monthly in November, Torres revealed his background, his life in prison, and the mechanics of his trade. His only request in return was to give a “shout-out” to his daughter, Lucia Torres. “I love you, baby girl,” he said. “You stay strong till Daddy comes home!”

Torres was raised in Southeast Houston by parents who were illegal immigrants from Michoacán, Mexico. He said his parents had a lot of problems, and as a result, he and his brothers had the freedom to do whatever they wanted.

“Street gangs, drugs, all that came next,” Torres said. “My thing was ‘taggin.’ I loved the art.”

When Torres was first locked up, he bought a copia. He got comfortable with the repetition of tracing and familiarized himself with his materials. Then he branched out and began creating his own patterns.

“You don’t have to be an artist to do paños,” he said. “But if you’re someone that has never drawn, yeah, probably your first fifty paños are gonna be boo-boo! It’s not that easy to just sit and draw on loose cotton.”

Torres first “irons” his paños. This used to involve soaking the paño in milk (or hair gel) and then spreading it on the wall of his cell to smooth over using his ID card. Now he uses wax to harden the paño, like a canvas, which makes it easier to work on.

Torres was readying a paño for a Christmas present at the time of his correspondence. He said there’s no money in making paños, but he’s been compensated with essentials like stamps, shoes, soup, and cookies.

“If you don’t have food, well, basically you’re stuck with the slop they give you around here,” he said. “Maybe that’s why I’ve gotten good, tired of eating slop! LOL j/k.”

Despite his jovial nature, Torres made it clear that paños exist as an enduring symbol of sorrow and loneliness.

“Till this day, paños are known for the struggles our ‘raza’ faced back in the dayz,” Torres said. “In one paño, one man’s life!”

A paño representing San Antonio, Texas. Paño art: Ricardo Bautista. Photograph by Josh Huskin.

Malena Gonzalez-Cid stood in the office of her colleague, Ruth Marlisa Guajardo, one morning last September. She was showing off a bin of about 35 paños now relegated to Centro Cultural Aztlán’s archives. The paños lay in plastic sleeves, backed by cardboard. On some were stickers with prisoners’ names, from jails like Bexar County and Huntsville. Leftover price tags ranged from $40 to $50. There were mural scenes from the artists’ old barrios and portraits of revered figures like Jesus Christ, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Tejano superstar Selena. In some, Aztec warriors conveyed mighty ancestry. In others, voluptuous women with long black hair represented desire.

One particular paño called a viaje, or journey, told the personal story of one man’s fall from grace. In the background, the sun looked down over a prison tower. Two beautiful women (or maybe they are the same woman) hovered in the sky, watching over the man. In the first of three depictions of the man, he is portrayed as a free man, wearing a knit cap and holding a crescent moon. In the second, he’s caught in a vortex of bad energy, his cap replaced by a bandana. In the third depiction, he’s in jail, the upper half of his face obscured by prison bars.

In the middle of the paño, a clock strikes a quarter past twelve—perhaps the time of the man’s crime. Around it were what looked like tissues, or miniature paños, spiraling out towards the viewer, each with a number on them chronicling the calendar years that the man had spent in jail: ‘94, ‘95,  ‘96,  ‘97,  ‘98, ‘99.

“It’s their trajectory—” Gonzalez-Cid said before correcting herself, “or tragic-tory of their life.”