Arts & Theater

15-story mural of Johnny Cash aims to bring attention to prison reform

It’s hard to miss in downtown Sacramento: a giant red, orange and yellow likeness of Johnny Cash performing at Folsom State Prison.

The new mural is famed graphic artist and activist Shepard Fairey’s contribution to this year’s Wide Open Walls festival, which started Aug. 9 and ended on Sunday. The 15-story mural is on the L Street side of the Residence Inn by Marriott, with Cash’s gaze pointing toward the Folsom institution, site of one of his most famous performances.

Fairey, who is best known for the iconic “Hope” poster supporting Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and his clothing line OBEY, said in a news release that the mural is a tribute to Cash on the 50th anniversary of his album “Live at Folsom Prison.”

The mural is based on a print Fairey produced in 2016 as part of his American Civics series. The mural is Fairey’s largest in California, he said, and his most “most technically ambitious mural ever.”

The mural goes beyond just a tribute to Cash, though. It specifically recognizes the singing legend’s passion for prison reform, a cause also embraced by Fairey.

According to the California State Library, Cash staged close to 30 prison concerts over a 20-year period and two albums were based on those performances: “Live at Folsom Prison” and “Live at San Quentin.”

In 1972, Cash testified before Congress about conditions that he observed during prison performances.

“I have seen and heard of things at some of the concerts that would chill the blood of the average citizen,” Cash told the Subcommittee on National Penitentiaries. “But I think possibly the blood of the average citizen needs to be chilled in order for (change) to come about because right now we have 1972 problems and 1872 jails… People have got to care in order for prison reform to come about.”

Fairey said in a news release that he hopes his mural will “ignite a conversation around the need for incarceration reform,” as the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

“Draconian drug laws, rampant institutional racism, and poverty have been significant driving factors in the skyrocketing growth of incarceration,” Fairey said. “Overzealous incarceration and for-profit prisons have become a predatory profiteering racket that costs taxpayers tens of billions of dollars annually while also dramatically increasing the likelihood of repeat offenders and putting overall society at greater risk.”

The mural also features elements that Fairey hopes will bring more attention to the need for prison reform, including “headlines” and other text that address life in prison.

Fairey said a portion of proceeds he makes from the Johnny Cash print will go toward #Cut50, an organization dedicated to garnering bipartisan support for prison reform.

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