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(All photos courtesy of @artisanal_prison_shanks)
This article first appeared on VICE UK
Collecting knives is a fairly popular pastime. Whether it's Reddit atheists, Soulcalibur fans or just plain old scary loners with at least one Azrael tattoo and a wardrobe full of string vests, there must be hundreds of thousands of blades out there, proudly displayed in polished glass cabinets or Blu-Tacked to the wall of a bedroom that smells a lot like anchovies.
For the most part, collectors tend to favour knives that are either "aesthetically pleasing", well-crafted or which represent some kind of niche interest in 17th century warfare. Not so for the man behind "Artisanal Prison Shanks", an Instagram page that posts photos of knives cobbled together by prisoners out of HB pencils, toothbrushes and sharpened wood.
To find out why anyone would want to collect these, I had chat with the guy – who wanted to remain anonymous – to get his thoughts.
VICE: Hi. So why do you do this?
Artisanal Prison Shanks: I've always been interested in these kind of objects. They feel aesthetically pleasing due to the fact they're built purely for functionality, using materials available. I just felt more people should see them.
Do you worry people think you're a violent maniac, or at least glorifying these weapons?
Absolutely. I'm a good worrier, so I have to keep this whole thing under wraps. Its my dark secret. People might think I'm a bit of a psycho for being into this subject, though, yeah, and I can I understand that. I mean, it's not the kind of thing you put in a Tinder bio.
No, please don't put that on there. So how did you get started? Were you ever inside?
No, I've never been to jail, but I remember hearing about shanks on some 90s documentary and then seeing them in the flesh at a curiosities sale in the US. I've always been into folk art or outsider art, and when I first saw them I didn't see them as weapons but as sculptural pieces.
"To be honest, this is probably a bad time to say I'm a pacifist."
How many knives do you have?
In my personal collection I have five, but these are pieces I've made myself – recreations of ones I've seen. Back when I was in America I had six more that I'd bought from auctions and shops, but I had to leave them behind.
You make them yourself?
Well yeah, because I haven't seen many real prison shanks for sale in the UK. The prisons destroy them over here, but in the US some guards are known to sneak them out, even though it's actually a federal offence to do so.
So they sell them in the US, as collector's items?
Yeah. I guess it's not official prison merch, but you can buy them in bulk in the States. I've seen people on Instagram selling American ones for $25 a piece. They don't sell them in the UK, though.
Because it's illegal?
It's illegal to buy and sell certain types of knife here, and as shanks would come under the bracket of either "disguised", "stealth" or "zombie" knives, they are illegal to buy, sell or even own outright. That said, as I keep these shanks for artistic purposes, you are allowed to have them in your own home, just as long as you don't walk down the street with one in your pocket. The same law that allows you to justify owning knives for art can also apply for knives being used in certain religious ceremonies or public exhibitions, basically.
Okay. Do you have a favourite?
I like the ones that are made using totally innocuous everyday items.
Like toothbrush shanks. Every prisoner will have a toothbrush, and most will have a lighter or matches. Just by heating up the end on the handle you can shape it into anything, put a small sharpened piece of metal into it, and boom: a shank with a handle. But you don't even need any sharp bits of metal. You can just heat the plastic and rub it against a rough surface to make a point.
Is the way they're made the reason you love them so much?
Yeah, I love the craft behind them. Seeing how they were made using only the materials they can find in their cells or around the prison. The resourcefulness is amazing. People make shanks out of all sorts. I've heard rumours of someone making a shank out of Jolly Rancher sweets. Only someone who spends their day locked in a cell could think of that. It's kind of Apollo 13-ish. You only have these materials; you can't get anything from the shop. You gotta use your creativity.
Which prisons are these from then?
I don't know about the ones that I've posted. All of my physical ones are reproductions, but I've seen a few that have come out of correctional facilities in Tennessee, and one shank that was used in a homicide in 1981.
So you know some of them have been actually used to hurt people?
There are only one or two that I can for sure say have been used to hurt someone. The rest, you have to assume they've been used as such, seeing as they're from prisons. I spoke to the owner of a particularly gnarly-looking one and he says it was used to murder an inmate in the States.
Does that not bother you, the fact you're then displaying them like this? Or do you see beauty in the violence?
Well, to be honest, this is probably a bad time to say I'm a pacifist. I can understand that people find beauty in it, but not me. I just like them as quantifiable objects.
What are your plans for your collection other than your Instagram page?
I was hoping to sell some to raise money for prison charities – charities that go into prisons and use art as therapy for inmates. A lot of prisoner art sells for thousands of pounds or dollars, so I hope people might eventually see the artistic beauty in these shanks as well.
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