By Tommy Winfrey
Alfredo Santos, a San Quentin legend, died at the age of 87, at 6:15 a.m. at Jacob Healthcare in San Diego on Friday, March 15.
Famed for his creation of the murals in San Quentin’s South Dining Hall, Santos gained recognition for this work in 2003 when he returned to the prison to view the work he completed almost 50 years prior.
Santos won a prison art contest to paint a mural on one of the 100-foot-long dining hall walls and began painting in 1953.
After completion of the first mural, prison officials decided to allow Santos to continue painting, and he has generally been credited with all six 12-foot-high murals on the walls of the dining hall.
With the help of two fellow prisoners, Santos worked nights painting the murals.
The murals depict scenes from California’s early history and through its golden years. Movie stars and soldiers crowd the walls. A space rocket is pictured in one of the murals. This early illustration was painted in the infancy of the space race between the U.S. and Russia and may be the earliest example of spaceship art in murals.
Santos’ murals depict an advanced use of perspective that allows objects such as a giant plane and trolley to look as if they are headed straight at a viewer no matter which side of the dining hall he’s viewing from. Santos also interjected humor and risqué scenes into his murals. He painted a “peeping Tom” watching a woman undress from a rooftop in one of the murals.
There is a common myth at San Quentin that Santos used coffee grounds or shoe polish to paint the murals, but the truth is he applied raw sienna oil paint directly to the plaster.
“Santos was allowed only one color; officials feared inmates might steal paint and dye their clothes in an effort to escape,” reported the Los Angeles Times.
In 1951, Santos was convicted of possession of heroin. He had limited training as an artist before being incarcerated.
After he was freed from prison in 1955, “Santos worked at Disneyland as a caricaturist and then opened a studio and gallery in San Diego, his hometown,” the New York Times wrote.
According to the same article, Santos again found himself on the wrong side of the law and fled to Mexico after pleading guilty to possession of marijuana. He returned to the U.S. in 1967, where he continued his work as an artist. Over the years, he ran several successful art galleries in Mexico and New York.
Although Santos had many accomplishments as an artist in his 87 years, “San Quentin is where I became an artist,” he once told the New York Times.