Why you should care
Because doing art while doing time is probably the best possible use of both.
This is first in a series on the world’s most violent prisoners.
He has lived more lives in the stony lonesome of a British prison than most of us do while free.
Meet Mr. Charles Salvador, formerly Michael Gordon Peterson, all 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds of him. He has also gone by Charles Bronson, a change prompted by his boxing manager. Or simply Bronson, after a haunting, somewhat fictionalized 2008 biopic of that name. Today Salvador is a recipient of British government largesse via Wakefield prison, one of the largest and highest-security prisons in the U.K. Wakefield, too, has other names: People call it Monster Mansion because of the vast profusion of hard cases it houses — and it’s where Salvador is serving a life sentence for a kidnapping while behind bars.
Apparently murder is completely unnecessary — Salvador has never actually killed anyone — to earn the utterly charming sobriquet “the most violent prisoner in Britain.” Unnecessary when you consider Salvador’s rap sheet, which is replete with impulse crimes, assaults, kidnappings and a steady diet of punch-ups with prison authorities — punch-ups that got him classified as a Category A prisoner, “highly dangerous to the public or national security.”
But maybe that kind of rap sheet is what follows, given the sheer amount of time Salvador has logged in prison, more than 40 of his 62 years alive. About 36 of those, by press reckoning, have been in solitary confinement because of his inability to play well with others. If you’re doing the math, that’s more than 120 prisons, at least 11 hostages, more than half a million pounds in damages and only about four months and nine days out of prison since 1974, when he was arrested for stealing 26 pounds (about $38). That incident set in motion a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies, since being near other people, if he’s not fighting with them, is an anxiety-ridden affair, according to Salvador, who recoils at being breathed on by other humans, at their smells and at, in total, a lot of what makes humans, well, human.
His artwork, though, and his writing — and a propensity for the kind of physical fitness that keeps him in fighting shape even in solitary — seem to serve as a salve for a soul unsettled. And largely because of the spot-on cinematic take on Salvador by Tom Hardy (you might know him as Batman’s nemesis Bane in The Dark Knight Rises) — up to and including the then-Bronson shaving off his mustache and sending it to Hardy because he wanted him to have the real thing — Salvador’s art, featured heavily in the film, has been pulling in noteworthy interest.
The possibility that he’s really his own worst enemy becomes much more probable.
Very specifically to the tune of 11 Koestler Trust Awards, which honor art by prisoners, as well as 11 books and a mix of painted and illustrated artwork that disappeared from the London Underground just as quickly as it had appeared during a controversial two-week show back in 2010. In fact, it’s Salvador’s love of art that precipitated his last name change, in 2014 — it’s an homage to Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí. Maybe there’s something to that old saw about finer artistic pursuits soothing the savage beast.
However, Hannah Elliott, a self-declared criminal justice revolutionary/visionary from Florida International University, supports the general idea that there’s nothing at odds with a propensity for anti-social activities and the creation of good, even great, art. “The fact that Picasso was never arrested for being an A-1 prick, among other things, surprises me much more than the fact that Salvador has,” she says. “His raising 30,000 pounds [about $44,000] from selling his stuff is pleasantly surprising though.”
Victims’ rights issues aside — Salvador liberally donates monies made from the sale of his art to children’s hospices — his otherworldly strangeness doesn’t begin and end with the fist. He had a son during his first marriage, converted to Islam on the occasion of his second, renounced Islam and has just seen the business end of a decision to renounce violence. A renunciation that probably has very little to do with the periodic campaigns for his release, the last of which got a 10,000-signature petition to the government, where it was subsequently ignored.
“I fear no one,” Salvador, who could not be reached in prison for comment, once said and later emblazoned in one of his books. “Violence just makes me madder and stronger.” But there are all kinds of madness and other kinds of strength, and when you realize that Salvador drew the life sentence for taking hostage a prison educator who critiqued his art, the possibility that he’s really his own worst enemy becomes much more probable.
Or as David Gussak, a professor in Florida State University’s art education department and clinical coordinator for its graduate art therapy program, said, after analyzing Salvador’s paintings for Psychology Today, “They do not appear to be completed by someone overly aggressive and out of control, let alone a reflection of emotional turmoil. The very act of completing these images may in a sense provide him a semblance of control and mastery over the very environment he feels forces him to lose control.”