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Painting a Second Chance: The Life and Art of Luis “Suave” Gonzales

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The art culture found in Philadelphia is known throughout the country for its unique styles and the dozens of murals found throughout the city. Many artists have made a name for themselves here through their art and their contributions to the community.

With this culture comes many unique backstories to show where this art comes from, and of all the backstories, none are as unique as that of Luis Suave Gonzalez, a former inmate who found art behind bars.

Luis, who prefers to go by Suave, began painting while he was serving a life sentence for his involvement in a 1986 murder of a fellow teenager over a leather jacket. He was only 16 at the time of his arrest.

Before he found himself facing a life sentence, Suave grew up in The Bronx, where he was surrounded by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and street artists like 3D, Fame, and Lemon. 

He relocated to Philadelphia at a young age and attended high school in the city. Coming from a troubled background, prison was not uncommon among his peers, and that is here Suave found himself in the late 80’s. 

When he was first incarcerated, Suave got himself into trouble in the prison, which resulted in an 8-year stint in solitary confinement. He began looking for an outlet and found that he was a talented artist.

It wasn’t long before he started teaching the other inmates how to paint watercolors and was producing art at a staggering rate.

His art gained the attention of some people in the prison and, eventually, the attention of journalist Maria Hinojosa, who visited the prison he was staying in in 1993. Hinojosa saw his talent and told him he can make a change with his craft. “She believed in me,” he said.

“When the prison stopped the media from coming into the prison, I said ‘Man, we got to have a way to get our message out’”, he said. He and several other artists he was in prison with contacted the Mural Arts of Philadelphia and started working on murals to be displayed through the city.

He continued to work on his art in prison when a second chance presented itself to him. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor overturned the sentencing of several juvenile cases three years ago, with Suave being one of 300 inmates let out of prison because he was still a minor at the time of his arrest.

After his sentence was over, Suave became more involved in politics because he wanted to change the society he came from. He saw the tool mass incarceration has taken on America and thinks that politicians and people need to step up to make the necessary changes to reduce the prison population. “The duty of art is to inspire change,” he said. 

In the wake of the protests that started with the death of George Floyd, Suave began to see that society needs to change. “Art has the power to change policy, to engage people in conversations, to transform.”

Suave is behind some of Philadelphia’s most well-known murals, including The Stamp of Incarceration on Callowhill Street, which he collaborated with famed “OBEY” artist Shepard Fairey on, and The Healing Wall, located on Germantown Avenue, which features a hidden image of his mother, who passed while he was incarcerated. 

His mother has been incorporated into several pieces he has done, including a picture of her hands, a piece that is very close to Suave’s heart. He drew her hands so he could be close to her even though he could not see her.

His art can be found throughout the city on buildings, but a lot of his art can be found on display at the Morton Contemporary Gallery, where his paintings hang for all to see. “Thank God I have a craft, which is art.”

Second chances have become a big part of Suave’s life. After receiving his college degree from Villanova University while incarcerated and making a name for himself as an artist, Suave found himself with the opportunity to turn his life around.

The artist behind 52 murals in the city of Philadelphia, Suave is working to help those living in the conditions he grew up in to reduce the amount of crime and loss of opportunities. Through art, he believes the world can be made a better place, and he is a prime example of creativity making a change.