"Amaze": Rikers Juvenile Inmates Get New Art From British Street Artist Ben Eine

Keegan Hamilton

Rikers Island is a dismal and dangerous place. Spread across 415 acres of repurposed landfill in the the East River between the Bronx and Queens, the island is home to more than 12,000 inmates in 10 separate jail facilities. There were 73 stabbings and slashings committed by inmates in 2013, and the general reputation for brutality, rape, and abuse earned Rikers a ranking among America's 10 worst prisons last year. It's basically the last place on Earth that a street artist like Ben Eine wants to find himself.

Eine was arrested multiple times for vandalism during his days as a graffiti writer, and he has pulled off some impressive stunts (including painting the West Bank barrier in Palestine with Bansky), but his recent daylong stint in Rikers was completely legal and voluntary. In fact, a warden actually invited Eine to paint a wall inside the jail, part of a new program aimed at inspiring young inmates with art. I profiled Eine and his new gallery work last week for Village Voice, and he invited me along to document what promised to be a surreal experience inside New York's notorious lockup.

Photos by Keegan Hamilton
Street artist Ben Eine painting inside a jail facility on Rikers Island
I met Eine and his accomplices Ben, Julio, and Lorenzo at a painfully early hour on a frigid Thursday morning last week. We nursed coffees, and stopped to gather the essential supplies -- spray paint and cigarettes -- before heading to Rikers. The island's only connection to land is a narrow bridge on the northern tip of Queens with guardhouses at either end. Although a prison official had invited Eine to the jail, the artist has the word "GUILTY" tattooed on his neck and generally looks the part of an erstwhile graffiti writer. The awkwardness was palpable when we arrived at the first guardhouse.

Eine's partner Ben rolled down the window and announced, "We're here to paint a wall," sounding as cheerful as possible with his British accent.

The guard surveyed the bleary-eyed and bearded artists. He looked confused. "You're here to post bail?"

Eine at work at the Robert N. Davoren Complex on Rikers Island
After a few minutes of convincing, we were ordered to park, unload all the paint and gear, and wait for another guard to come ferry us across the bridge. Eine lit the first of many Marlboro Lights, and we stood shuffling our feet and rubbing our hands. The forecast called for a high of 25 degrees, and the wind on the exposed parts of the island is bitterly cold. After 30 minutes, our ride arrived: a beat-up Department of Corrections inmate transport van with a riot gear helmet rolling around in the back.

The driver was a friendly Puerto Rican guard who introduced himself as Q. As we crossed the bridge onto the island, Q patiently answered our questions about the jail (yes, somebody managed to escape once; no, conjugal visits are not permitted) and guided us through the remaining security checkpoints. As we arrived at our destination, the Robert N. Davoren Complex, or RNDC, a call came over the radio in the van saying a suicidal inmate was threatening to jump from the fourth floor somewhere above us.

"You believe this friggin' guy?" Q said. "Welcome to the RNDC."

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