On a Sunday earlier this summer, we enlisted the help of graffiti writer and artist Jesse Stark to paint the cover image for the photo shoot for our “American Graffiti” issue near Lincoln Street Art Park. It was an all-day effort that took a small crew, and we were off to a rough start thanks to some early afternoon rain. While taking shelter inside Woodbridge Pub, we decided to start interviewing Stark. Mid-interview, though, he insisted we speak instead to his friend Quindell Mitchell — a muscular African-American who, even though was abstaining from the Bloody Mary marathon session the rest of the crew was engaged in, was arguably the most affable guy at the table.
Mitchell, 37, said he splits his time between being a tattoo artist, graffiti writer, and painter these days. He didn’t go to school per se to study art, but he did go to prison, where he served a total of 15 years for two sentences.
“Prison life offers two things,” Mitchell says matter-of-factly. “It either pulls out the best of you or the worst of you.”
The first time Mitchell went to prison was when he was 18. He was at a party and someone accused him of stealing a tape, and wouldn’t leave him alone. “It’s weird how the courts do, because nobody really considers circumstances,” he says. “At this time I had a brother who had just got killed. This guy kept telling me he was going to do stuff to me, and he ended up rushing me. When he rushed me, I stabbed him — this was after warning him three or four times.”
The second time Mitchell went to jail was for robbery — “a long story,” he says. But circumstances were different this time, as he now had a daughter. “When I first went to prison, I didn’t have anything, I didn’t care about nothing,” he says. “It wasn’t like I was missing anything.”
While behind bars, Mitchell sought solace in religion, and also pursued art — which isn’t easy in prison, as art supplies are expensive. While working as a barber, Mitchell made his own paintbrushes by secretly keeping clippings of white prisoners’ hair, gluing them into marker cases.
He soon established a reputation in jail for his artistic abilities, and was approached by someone who was running an illegal tattoo business — who also happened to be a white supremacist.
“This guy could tattoo, but he couldn’t draw,” Mitchell says. “So he said, ‘I need you to draw for me, and I’ll pay you.’ I’m looking at this guy, like, who are you, talking to me, man?” Mitchell started drawing designs for him, and the two were soon pulling in so many customers that the white supremacist decided to teach Mitchell how to tattoo so he could help keep up with demand. Mitchell says he tattooed using a tape player motor and a bottle of typewriter ink, which he kept hidden in a secret lining in his jacket.
The relationship went sour when Mitchell started getting more customers. “I had gotten so good, he told the officers that I was tattooing,” Mitchell says. “Needless to say, with the law of prison, I had to go in there and take care of him.”
Today, Mitchell tattoos at various venues, among them Dixie Tattoo Co. in Waterford. He also works as part of 5 Avenues, a graphic design collective he started with Stark, which aims to create a pool of freelance designers. “There’s people at home right now who have majors in graphic design,” he says. “We’re filling up the database with different artists who have different skill sets.”
Asked which art form he identifies with most, Mitchell is hesitant to answer. “My life is driven by priority,” he says of his various artistic interests. “It’s like, what’s going to be most beneficial to me at this particular moment in time? That’s how I do it. But if you were to ask me what I love, if I could just tattoo what I want to tattoo — that’s it, man.”
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