Unlocking History: San Quentin’s historic murals launched artist’s career

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Photos by Eric Owens, CDCR staff photographer

(Editor’s note: Unlocking History is part of an ongoing series examining the history of the department.)

In 1951, a young man named Alfredo Santos was busted for dealing heroin, earning him a stint at San Quentin State Prison.

When the prison held an art contest, his entry won and he was tapped to improve the dining hall. Thus, his long artistic career was born.

In 1953, he started painting what would eventually become a well-known collection of 100-foot-long murals.

“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,” the Los Angeles Times reported on May 9, 2008. “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. … Later, he opened a gallery in San Diego and embarked on a long career as a fine artist.”

He recounted in later newspaper articles that he was ashamed of his time in prison and he kept his involvement in the murals a secret. He eventually admitted to being the artist.

“In 2003, Santos was finally identified as the muralist, a story corroborated by retired guards who had served as models for characters. (Prison officials) invited Santos to San Quentin, where he was feted and given an honorary key to the joint,” the newspaper reported.

In his later years, Santos was broke but he was grateful for the recognition his early work received. Santos publicly credited San Quentin for giving him his start as an artist.

He told the newspaper, “It’s too late for me to make any money. … But at least I’m finally being recognized. It’s proof that I existed.”

The first mural is more conservative because Santos said he wanted to keep the prison officials happy. As he progressed, so did his creativity. His last mural was more reminiscent of a cartoon.

“That mural is 100 percent original,” Santos told the New York Times, Aug. 19, 2007. “I wanted to give the guys something to laugh at, but I can tell you that I worked real fast on it, since my parole date was coming up. I didn’t want to give anyone an excuse to keep me.”

According to the New York Times, “restorations were carried out in the late 1960s, when a clear protective coating was applied, and again in the 1990s.”

The artist passed away March 13, 2015.


6 Responses

  1. J.R. Monday, August 7, 2017 / 5:02 pm

    I had the opportunity to see these murals in person and I was in awe. Is it true the medium is derived from coffee grounds?

    • Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor Tuesday, August 8, 2017 / 6:01 am

      That’s a myth. He used regular paint but was only allowed one color. Thank you for reading!

  2. Dick Nelson Thursday, August 3, 2017 / 4:11 pm

    During my tenure as an Accociate Warden at San Quentin and president of the San Quentin Museum Assocation the murals were becoming damaged from graffiti and the scrubbing to remove it. The museum assocation, under the guidance of an art Professor at Cal. State University, Santa Cruz,(Her son was a teacher at SQ) purchased the material, paid an inmate to restore them. This was around 1993.

  3. E. Martin Thursday, August 3, 2017 / 11:21 am

    If you have an opportunity to visit San Quentin, make sure to visit the dining halls. The work is outstanding. California’s history is well represented. Pictures of the murals do not do it justice. Up front and personal is the only way to fully appreciate them.

  4. Elizabeth Henshaw Thursday, August 3, 2017 / 9:31 am

    Fascinating article. I love the murals Alfredo Santos painted. His work is in a class by itself. Good to know the history of his work. What I heard in the past was different.

    Thank you for such a great article and pics of a few of the artist’s famous murals.

  5. J. Carrillo Thursday, August 3, 2017 / 9:14 am

    Someone that has seen these murals in person tried to describe them, but advised it is something you have to see yourself to be able to appreciate. There are very fascinating images – the complexity of how the images are laid out as well as for the volume of historical scenery depicted. Thank you for sharing this, Inside CDCR. It will afford many more people the opportunity to view this legendary bit of CDCR history.

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