Creating Powerful Art Through Conversations With Death Row Inmates

Addam Yekutieli (AKA Know Hope) works to create discussion amongst people who wouldn’t normally be able to have an objective conversation together. By stripping down language and ideas and putting them into the public sphere, he hopes to take away our preconceived notions of people and politics and cut to the emotional core of issues.

His projects all feature a human element, and whether he’s writing to an inmate in Nashville or hand tattoing a volunteer with meaningful words, he wants to connect with people on a deep, emotional level. And he wants his art to change, evolve, and grow with every person who interacts with it.

I spoke to Addam on the phone and we discussed his various projects, including his work with death row inmates in Nashville. That project brings inmates’ words anonymously to the population at large, and allows citizens to connect emotionally with a group of the population that they normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to hear from.

It’s a powerful piece of work, and one that I really looked forward to discussing with Addam at length.

Why did you begin doing art in public spaces?

I’ve been making art my whole life. But I went through this paradigm shift once I had discovered taking art and placing it in a public space. It really changed the way that I perceived the creative process. What I could do with art that I was making, what type of dialogue and conversation I could create. And that again, really changed the way that I kind of perceived this tool.

Working in a public space really allows for a broader conversation. For your art to be part of a larger, more collective reality. And to interact with the surroundings and the people living in those surroundings in a more intimate and direct way. Kind of becoming part of the broader texture of the city.

What projects you’re working on?

There are three kind of main projects I’ve been working on for the last few years. One is (called) Vicariously Speaking.

Yes! I’m super interested in that project. Can you tell me more about it?

Basically, what I’ve been doing in that project is corresponding with inmates that are currently on death row in a Nashville prison. They’re all hand-written letters. The correspondences … I don’t do any prior research about who the people that I’m corresponding with are or what their backgrounds are. I really wanted to start it from a neutral standing point.

What do you talk about?

The topics really range. There’s no specific agenda to the content, because the topics really range from the personal to the political to the philosophical. You know, it really varies, depending on who I’m corresponding with.

Then next stage of the project is to take phrases or fragments of sentences out of their letters. And place them in a public space. Once they’re out of their original context, they become pretty much devoid of their original intent or meaning. And that allows it to take a more universal form. And once they’re placed in public space, they’re interacting with society in a way, and there’s a certain presence of theirs — that is placed in prominent places around the city.

The initial run was a series of billboards that we did in Nashville this past June. It was amazing to see how people really related to these phrases and found personal meaning with phrases taken out of context. Whereas I believe that if they would know where the origin of the phrases were, they might not be able to connect to it in the same way. There are a lot of different … The whole topic of death row and capital punishment and prison system in America’s a very complex and loaded issue.

Going into this project, did you have an idea of how you felt about the death penalty? Did you have a strong opinion?

I had my moral, kind of, conscience. But it wasn’t something that I focused on in my work beforehand. But since then it obviously is something that has entered the forefront of my practice and my outlook. For me, it is about allowing for a kind of a political or social discussion or discourse to take place from an emotional standing point. Generally, my work … I try to perceive different political situations or images as emotional mechanisms because I feel that that broadens the discussion and also makes it much more accessible. I think that kind of bypasses certain potholes that exist in these types of conversations that are usually based on, kind of like polemics that either is about preaching to the choir or creating antagonism. I think a lot of people say, “Oh I’m not a political person. I don’t know that much about the current topics,” but I think that everyone knows what it feels like to be jealous, to feel disillusioned, or to feel heartbroken. I think that these situations are very similar to these larger and more complicated issues. I think that in my work I always try to kind of speak through situations like that and then address these larger, more complex issues.

Can you tell me some specifics about the letters? Has there been a letter or phrase that has really emotionally affected you?

One thing that comes to mind, one of the sentences that I selected was … or a fragment of a sentence was “falter in my struggle.”

Yeah, that’s really powerful.

For me, when I was asking people on the street what they thought of it, or what the first associations and conversations were, someone said that, “Everyone has their ups and downs, and kind of strife in their personal lives, but it’s always important to remember that it passes and to remember to be forgiving towards yourself.”

I think for me, knowing where the original sentence came from and who said it gave a very powerful layer to how that sentence can be perceived. The original sentence was, “I will never falter in my struggle to better myself.” This is written by an inmate that has been on death row for close to thirty years. These are people that have gone … Some of them have gone through very significant transformations. It raises a lot of moral questions, and questions about forgiveness. That person was put on death row in his twenties and now he is in his fifties. It raises questions about who is going to be executed, the twenty year old that allegedly committed the crime, or the transformed fifty year old. I think that for me, it’s less about conveying a specific agenda or certain message, but more observing the emotional intricacies of these issues. Just that sentence, “falter in my struggle,” could make a person identify and connect in a very deep and personal place, and then, for me, knowing where it originated, was a very powerful moment to witness.

Have you found out what the inmates did that put them in prison and does that change in anyway how you thought of them? Originally corresponding without knowing?

Actually none of them, until now, have written about that. My first letter was kind of an open letter. Obviously each letter from that point on was written individually to each person. The first letter, because I didn’t know anything about any of the people… I was talking about how it’s strange to start a correspondence with someone that you know nothing about …On both ends, both them me and me them. I was talking about how usually when you get to know someone, you start with this exposition of yourself … kind of give your background. I told them that this is something that I want to try not to do. (I wanted) to start where we are now, whether it be physical or metaphorical, and we’ll take it from there. I’m sure that … I could also, with enough research, find out what each of these people are convicted for, but it’s something that I feel would really hurt the integrity of the project.

Things aren’t black and white. Things are very complicated. There are a lot of racial issues, a lot of mental health issues, a lot of negligence that takes place. A lot of the backgrounds that a lot of these people come from are very difficult circumstances. It’s very easy to get sucked into certain vicious cycles. Again, it’s something that I am very respectful towards.

Do you plan on meeting the inmates in person? Are you planning a trip to Nashville at some point?

I hope to. I hope to at some point.

Your art is so dependent on people interacting with your words and with your creations. Can you talk a little bit about that? And specifically, your projects that involve people tattooing phrases themselves?

Yeah. Well for me, you know, for the past … I guess over ten years, I’ve been developing this iconography that I’ve been using in my work. Kind of like a visual language, that was created to allow that dialogue, and allow that conversation.

By using reoccurring images, it allowed me to create a common language with the viewer. All the images and scenes that I depict in my work, they’re based on real-life situations and human interactions that I see around me that I attempt to translate into a broader, more universal representation. After a while, I realized that what I was doing is creating this kind of alternative universe that was very much associated with me, and my practice and my work. And I really believe that the strongest metaphors are all around us. And at any given time, that we’re very much active participants in the creation of these metaphors.

And then I went back to using text in my pieces. My first outdoor pieces ever were all text-based. Then I transitioned into image-based work. I choose different locations and react to them, try to, in a way, personify them. And for me, the text itself is not the actual piece, but more the different situations that happened in the periphery of the piece. So, for example, I write “a minor refusal” on a wall, that’s not the piece. But the piece is the older lady carrying grocery bags walking next to it, or the couple that walks by and hugs with that in the background. And because it has a public space, there are endless images like that that are created constantly.

How do you get pictures of people? Do you hang out there and watch people interact with the piece, and walk by?

Yeah. So for me, none of the pieces or the photographs of the pieces are staged. It really is about releasing control of the exclusive ownership of the image. And of about suggesting an image as opposed to illustrating one. And a lot of it I think is just kind of knowing that even if I’m not there to capture it, there are, you know, people that are seeing these pieces, whether they’re not, you know, necessarily perceiving them as artworks. For me, it is kind of about humbling the artwork and becoming part of a larger dynamic.
So there’s kind of a million stories going on that you never see.

Yeah, And you know, that kind of led me into the type of work that I’ve been doing for the past few years. So the Truth and Method Project is where I take these phrases from my outdoor work and I tattoo them onto people. I put out these open calls, so the people that participate aren’t people that I know beforehand, or aren’t from my social circles. So we’ll be essentially be meeting each other for the first time through this kind of encounter. And then, we speak a little. They get to kind of … I get to know them, to understand who they are, they understand who I am, and where I’m coming from with this project.

Then I tattoo a phrase from my outdoor work onto them. I tattoo them all myself, because I think that is a kind of very intimate exchange that takes place.

Wow. So these are permanent tattoos?

Yeah, these are real tattoos. And for me, it is really about taking this text and transferring it onto people, and allowing it to be incorporated into their personal narratives. And later on, documentation takes place, where I document them in their daily lives, and through their different perceptions and understandings of the phrase. And they completely, again, create a new ownership over it. It distances me from being like the exclusive author of the image. And for me, it’s a lot about just kind of intimate exchange that continues afterwards. It’s a very long-term project, so the documentation continues.

What else are you working on now?

What I’m doing now is working on a big show that opens in April in London. For that exhibition I’m working on a project that also uses letters as a starting point. Letters that are written by Israelis and Palestinians from all different backgrounds, as eclectic as possible. All different walks of life, whether it be religious, secular, left-wing, right-wing, settlers, military refusers … and again different people from other religions and secular backgrounds in the Palestinian community … activists. I’m trying to make the letters represent as broad of a demographic as possible. What I’m doing in this project is creating a replica of the segregation wall in the gallery, and again taking phrases from the letters and scratching them onto the wall. By taking these phrases out of their original context, it’ll be hard to differentiate and to understand or distinguish who wrote which text and what their original intentions were. Each fragment of the wall will have roots, like roots of a tree, sticking out of it.

The project intends to examine the issues of belonging, of nativity, of homeland, again through a very philosophical and emotional standing point. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a very complicated, very real issue.

It seems like in a lot of ways, in several of your projects, you’re creating dialogue between people who would never speak to each other.

I think that is a large part of what I try to do. I think that once things are kind of taken out of their loaded context, it allows a birds eye view of a certain situation … and again allows this intuitive understanding. For me, it’s about attempting to break them down and allowing people to recognize the humanity in others without being perverted by preconceived notions.

You can follow Addam’s work at his website or on Instagram.