When Mickael Broth began serving a 10-month prison sentence for vandalism in July 2004, the graffiti artist and then-college student was forced to change the way he created art. Born and raised in Springfield, Broth, now 29, worked behind bars using four-inch ballpoint pens on notebook paper and M&M shells for color. The Virginia Commonwealth University grad has begun an onsite residency at Artisphere, where he will create and exhibit drawings using the same techniques he learned behind bars. He will showcase a collage of artwork and documents related to his incarceration. Here, Broth talks about how he has channeled his frustration into art:
“The thing that really led to my arrest down in Richmond was painting a CSX train bridge that went over six lanes of traffic on I-295. I painted the word ‘refuse.’ The posters and stickers I’d been putting up and down the East Coast had the phrase ’refuse to be smart,’ which had started out as a joke in high school. I think some part of me realistically understood that what I was doing would make people angry enough that I’d probably wind up in jail, but I think I was also either naive or just cocky enough to think, ‘Well, I’m not going to get caught. I’m not that stupid.’ But apparently I was wrong about that.
“In jail, you’re obviously limited to what tools either they provide or that you can get under the radar. They were pretty strict on what you could have. Basically, I was using a small, flexible ballpoint pen. It’s about three or four inches long, and it’s used to prevent people from being able to use it as a weapon. Using it to draw with was a real challenge. Figuring out ways, first of all, to make it into a semi-stiff pen by wrapping paper really tightly around it so that it formed what you would think of as a normal ballpoint pen. And just figuring out ways from either kind of being resourceful with what I had or watching what other inmates did. They would use the caps of soda bottles and just throw M&M’s or Skittles into it with a couple drops of water, and some Q-tips basically made watercolor brushes. Incarceration seems to turn people into MacGyver — people get really creative when they have very limited means.
“Every day I still think about it. It became part of the way that my brain looks at the world. I just always keep in mind that what I have is not worth losing for doing something stupid like that. Not that I think graffiti is necessarily stupid; it’s definitely the wrong choice for me. Drawing helps, just in a way [that] I could process all the competing thoughts that were going on in my mind; and at the same time, I use it to release a lot of anger. . . . It’s just become a way to process the world in a productive way rather than just being angry and frustrated.
“Most of the artwork I do [now] is work on paper. A lot of it is somewhat in the style of drawing that I developed while I was incarcerated — line work that flows from one image to another. It was something that really developed while I was in jail as kind of a way of processing everything that was happening in my life, all the changes I was going through. Since then, that’s really just become the way that I naturally express myself in my work.
“Primarily I draw work in the studio, but I love any chance I can get to paint a large wall, and especially something that there’s public interaction and people get to enjoy it. It’s nice to just sit in a quiet studio. It’s a lot nicer to do something that you feel like is actually impacting people’s daily lives in a way that they enjoy. ”
The artist will be onsite from 4-11 p.m. on May 11; noon-11 p.m. on May 12; and noon-5 p.m. on May 13.
For more information, go to Artisphere.com.