by Jacek Gulla

4 of 8.

—–I owe brushes and pencils life several times so far. To begin with, in Communist prison in Poland, where I saw my eighteenth birthday. An angel in every word and move, sharing a cell for four with five inmates, I survived the hell of it with my face and ass safe, owing to tattoo designs I drew for the gallerians, old name for the slave or convict oarsmen appropriated into prison lingo. Tall ships were in demand, each needed to look different, or I better not go take weekly general shower. With sails up, ships resemble a cloud seen through prison cross bars, and that’s how far this particular tradition goes back, I figured, tall ships of piracy ruling high seas in 1800eds. Next to tattoos, I was sketching portraits, studious for time the sentence clocks afford. Portraits of time wasted on cruel endless torment, behind the knot of features hearts pushing the celestial clockwork for faster beat. The felons liked the drawings enough to let me carry booklet out of jail. Not so with my scribbling. I was to allow gallerians destroy my diary, or I was declared a snitch, to be punished accordingly. There was a rape going on in our cell, a seven years sentence for killing his two neighbors, missing leg and arm from that fight, fucking a boy, but saying anything about it to guards meant death in the entire penitentiary system in Poland, way on the outside also. And now the boy had to eat, literally, all the paper with my hand writing on it to the last page, an hour or so of chewing and choking and tears for the lad, and for the diarist in me, a one terrifying lesson.

—–My prison schooling in art of tattoo could have had made me a millionaire here, in NYC, if I chose gross absurdity for freedom. The St. Mark’s Place of my first day in EV had a number of shops sporting their designs, winged sculls for most, dragons that come alive on athletic muscle, eagles, flaming hearts. I could have had walked in, drew my prison sail boat for the boss, the soul of sweet liberty, and I am certain I would never have to wait for rain to end one damned night in the Chinese gazebo in Central Park. That was one choice I had in my struggle to survive, the other being, for $700. 00 a week, an enormous sum these years, go go dancing around Christopher Street, my apollonian proportions and graces given to sickest phantasies and desires of any paying prick.

—–As luck would have it, out of the blue an invitation came my way, to meet with Salvador Dali in St. Regis Hotel, where he lived and worked. I was to confront a living legend of XX Century art. For that occasion I took with me my old prison sketch book, that a true master, with him History, judges my skills worth of cultivating, or not. The meeting took place in the hotel’s ornate library, Dali arriving impeccable in black, his mustache at the sharpest, models galore around him, camcorders, mics. Neither his or mine English was enough handy to converse, but Dali didn’t need words. He started puffing and sighing, Hmmm and Mmmm and Ahhh, turned his bulging orbs, his body language a tale full of question and exclamation marks, his focus caressing me with electric sparkle, but when I asked my translator, what does that pantomime mean, she said our host was poking fun at my own manner and looks, caricaturizing them for my sakes. I handed her the sketch book. Please, ask the master to look at my work. The arm chair acrobatics ceased when he opened it on the page with dates and place of execution. How sweet to my eyes were the slow minutes, while he went from one convict portrait to the next, attentive, receptive to the hilt, in the end to ask hotel service for a pencil. It was brought in on a silver tray minutes later, and with it my jail studies were completed by Dali’s famous, slash-dash signature, one after another, several pages in row.

—–And look! How surreal indeed, to pray today for thieves, that they take good care of their precious loot. Salvador Dali was soon after gone back to Spain, on the King’s invitation, given there a castle and nobility, death taking him with Gala’s name on lips, his Philip IV mustache bristling. And the sketch book he signed, it was stolen along with a chest of personal treasures, and – let’s wish – puzzles now academic circles, how happened, Dali was in Polish prison back in ’67?