William Drenttel | Slideshows

Dangerous Beauty: The Art of the Shiv

A shiv is a weapon crafted from the limited resources of a prisoner's closed world. Crudely constructed from such things as spoons, shoelaces and upholstery tacks, shivs lie somewhere between the graceful and the grotesque. They're primitive, too — like outsider art, but produced deep on the inside.

The individual parts that make up a shiv tend to be everyday objects, innocent things furtively reconstituted as lethal weapons. Each design choice is essential, but what's particularly notable is that shivs, at their core, are not so much evocations of minimalism as they are symbols of survivalism. A shiv is all about masked utility: it's an innocuous object with improbably toxic intent (whether used to attack others or to protect oneself...).

The shivs shown here, from the collection of designers Chris Kasabach and Vanessa Sica, were confiscated more than twenty years ago from New Jersey's Rahway Prison (now East Jersey State Penitentiary), a maximum-security facility that houses more than 1,500 inmates serving sentences of twenty-five years to life. The designers saw each shiv in their collection as a piece of evidence, and over time, came to identify a kind of unique design pathology. Their observations are fascinating, as are the artifacts that inspired them and the circumstances surrounding each object's unique method of manufacture. You'll never look at a typewriter the same way again.

Posted in: Product Design

Comments [37]

What strikes me is how aged and well-worn they seem to be.
Tim Murtaugh

I like number 9 the best.

And here's a neat little Web page about how to make a zip gun. The guy talks about being able to "design" one in a day. (Very creative use of punctuation and type.)

BONUS: Here's a photo of a zip gun that was found in a Canadian penitentiary. (Not as extensive as Mr. Kasabach's and Ms. Sica's fine collection of shiv's, but equally disturbing.)

Joe Moran

Stunning, is the word that comes to mind when viewing these. To speak formally of the shivs shown, the lines, forms, textures, and colors are almost breath taking.

It's strange how, when taken out of context, objects can be so beautiful. I doubt that i'd stop to ponder the shivs beauty were i being stabbed with it. Which leads me to my question, Are these being falsely represented in some way? Would we responded in the same way to beautiful photographs of US tanks resting on an Iraqi dune as the sun set?


Jordan, your question is an important one and should not be glossed over.

These shivs are not just evidence of the human ability to make something from nothing, to forge something beautiful from the most elemental materials. They are also evidence from a prison culture where people are killed everyday. Imagine what they would look like photographed in the hands of their makers?

In looking at these as formal objects of design, we should not forget their use and the context of their making. These objects were made to kill people ... or to protect someone from being killed. They may be evocative on many levels, but they should not be romanticized in their isolation; they also speak to a larger context of fear and danger.
William Drenttel

On a related and more humane note, the amazing Prisoners' Inventions show was a moving look at the ingenuity that goes on in prison. This ingenuity is put to all kinds of uses, from tattoo guns to cooking utensils to, inevitably, sex aids. By chance I saw the last exhibit at Yerba Buena in SF earlier this year and was struck most of all by the effort that prisoners took to approximate simple comforts and the most basic items. Worth a look.
Sam Potts

Can we also imagine a photograph of the people who created these "shivs" enjoying a piece of cheesecake?

Very Respectfully,
Joe Moran

Seeing them thus displayed gives them the appearance of a moroccan fetish,,, and I think the sight of a tank in Iraq is a poor comparison because these objects are primitive and tanks are clearly not, better to compare these objects with some sort of homemade explosive device. I got chills looking at these images.
djego padilla

I get a similar sick sensation when looking at these. The term "pathology" is particularly apropos. The "designer" had to really think these through as there most likely wasn't a lot of opportunity for R&D. At least, I hope there wasn't.

I think to truly "observe" them you experience some of that pathology yourself and that is what makes them so chilling. The immediacy of their brutality separates them from the tank example although I believe they ARE connected. I think the gun rack scene from the Matrix is a better example.

I get a similar sensation when watching children playing violent video games. The beautiful graphics disguise a horrifying pathology.
John Beck

Looking at these items - and hearing them discussed from the perspective of designers - I was struck by (after the beauty and ingenuity of the objects) the idea that the mind of the creator of each of these shivs would have become acclimatised to this mutated form of design.
As one becomes a student, and a practitioner, of design, the mind becomes irrevocably changed to see the world in design terms (function, efficiency etc.). This could be called a design 'mind-set', 'viewpoint', 'process'; call it what you may. But it seemed strange for me to consider, then, these inmates utilising, for all intensive purposes, the same 'process' to survey their surroundings: noting which items will prove most efficient; which items will require the least modification; which items will incur minimal cost (in terms of being caught appropriating them).

Maximum-security designers: an odd parallel to imagine.
Damien Attenborough

Good points all. The intensity of that environment strips away a lot of inefficiency. There can't be much room for error or "waste" in the process, can there.

I wonder if that's a unique context? Can anyone think of similar contexts? Students cheating on an exam? Drug addicts hiding their tools in the workplace? Espionage or counter-intelligence? Terrorist cells? I suppose they are related in their "covert" nature.
John Beck

Thank you William D. for addressing my contextual questions about the shivs. I too think it's important to consider the context of these items, and now that I've pondered the shivs, their context, and their creation I have another, somewhat tangential question, to ask.

Using the shivs as an example, it appears that design in its most functional context is void of any kind of decoration or personalization. Based on this observation my question; is a piece of design less functional when it is decorated and/or does the lack of decoration simply speak of the primary function of these weapons?

Let me be clear on as to why I'm asking these questions. First and foremost, I'm simply curious what others have to say, and second, in the recent years there has been an unquestionable resurgence in ornamentation, pattern, and decoration along the birth new movements such as Deco-Rationalism,but few are asking, How does this improve upon a design, thereby making it more effective?


As objects, these shivs are not beautiful any more so than car bombs are. They are weapons and idolizing a weapon is silly. Looking at these objects is only useful as a way of redesigning prision furniture and objects inside prisons to keep the same shivs from being made again.

But those resourceful inmates will find something new. That's why the designers of the buildings work with jailers to outhink them.

This just seems to romanticize prision as this beautiful pergatory on earth, and it's far, far from beautiful.

Just a note on the inventiveness prison can create from fear and/or survival. I guess this isn't particularly design related (apologies for that) but it does give an insight into how certain environments can create certain outcomes - often quite shocking ones.

'Marching Powder' is a very interesting nonfiction book about a most bizarre and dangerous prison in Bolivia. 'Marching Powder' was written by a young Australian Law student after spending 3 months in the prison, voluntarily.


My take--

The shivs are a response to a prisoner's will to survive/thrive in a violent environment. To intellectualize the weapons into design statements trivializes the reality of these individuals.

I think the real power is found in the collection of images that show the re-thinking a benign tool and transforming it into something deadly.

One image on its own is interesting. But a collection of repurposed objects is one way of telling the story of our prison system and the people who are incarcerated. And a powerful one.


Eunice Ockerman

You know - call me a philistine, but I don't see it.

A shiv is a piece of sharp metal or glass with some way to control it's use. It's a frickin sharp rock tied to a stick. There wasn't a whole lot of design going on here.

Then again, my artistic sensibilities may be biased from the idea that these are tools of destruction, not of creation. Unlike a gun, however, the act of creating the tool of destruction is in itself an act of destruction (for example, bet you the typewriter didn't work) and it's not exactly as if a whole lot of thought went into these things.

Again. Pointy. Controllable. That's all you need to make a shiv.
Brian Boyko

These are interesting questions that have been raised. What role should the context in which something was created, play in our further evaluation of what is now considered a piece of art? Is there an ethical obligation for us to consider the violent intention assigned to these weapons?

I would argue that if we are truly recontextualizing these shivs as works of art, then we must leave aside the intention of the artist in our considerations. If we truly consider these to be works of art, then we must not consider the violent purpose for which they were made. Once something has left the hands of the artist, it must stand alone and be received by a conscientous audience for what it is, and only what it is. That is to say, all that there is, is the art, and to that alone must we guide all our praise and/or critique. To consider the context in which it was created does a disservice to the art in question. It lessens the intrinsic value of the art. The art is no longer good in an independent and autonomous fashion, but good because it was created by a criminal, of whom we did not expect so much.

However, it may also be that part of the intrigue of these pieces is the very difficulty of separating the artist from the art, and from considering these shivs independent of their creator's intention.

I disagree with those who would divorce these artifacts' intended use from their form in order to consider their possible value as works of art; conflict and the violence it engenders are not foreign influences imbedded in us, they are inextricable parts of us and the basis of all art.

I see a cognitive dissonance induced when we use words like "beauty" regarding weapons because their design appeals to us on many levels, some of which we'd rather not acknowledge; Djego Padilla mentions he's reminded of Moroccan fetishes. Many of the objects bear stylistic resemblances to so-called "primitive" weapons; number 7 evokes African and South American club/axes, while number 4 looks like an updated Roman cestus.

However, partly because of the limitations their makers worked under they are supremely, exclusively ergonomic (from the wielder's standpoint at least) and we find that kind of form-follows-function "elegance" appealing.

We look at these things and are properly repelled by their necessity (anyone who believes shivs are not necessities in prison needs to see certain movies like "Glass Houses") yet we appreciate the ingenuity and effort that went into making them, and some dark part of us imagines holding and using them, and critiquing them.

They are soulless tools carefully crafted for a particularly soulless use, yet we can see them as objects d'art because they also satisfy at least some criteria we recognize as essential to art whether their makers intended it or not.

Cognitive dissonance isn't fatal, but one oughtn't obsess over it.
Mark L. Fergerson

"Imagine what they would look like photographed in the hands of their makers?"

Having worked in a Federal Penn, I can tell you, you would never get the chance. If you see one in the hand of a prisoner, you are about to feel pain.

This brings back memories. When I was growing up in the 70s, my dad was an assistant warden, and in the 80s, a warden at a series of prisons in Arkansas. We used to have Mr. Coffee coffee maker boxes full of shanks and shivs. Examining these things was an endless source of fascination for a young kid.

Filed down screwdrivers, sharpened toothbrush handles, forks and spoons with razor edges, rusty nails, air conditioner vent slats; seemingly everything featured a black electrical tape "handle." Nothing seemed beyond the imagination of the desperate folks on the inside of the building.

I wonder if my dad kept any of those things, or if they have been lost to time. I guess I could always ask him to shake down the barracks and send me the findings. I'd love to have another chance to rummage through a few coffee maker boxes now.

I agree with Mr. Fergerson--attempting to divorce these items from the context of their creation (not necessarily the same as creator's intent) is intellectually deluded. Not only is context inseparable, but the act of divorce is only to reintegrate the object into a different context, namely the viewer's. So there is no real separation from context, only re-contextualization. And the value of one of these objects is not only in its pure, economical craftsmanship, but in requiring an identification with the original context, in enforcing (itself violently) a recognition of the violent circumstances of its birth.
the Brightside

The Tricks of the Trade of the HOOSEGOW.

The Hoosegow is about Survival among Animalistic Mentalities.

Pure, Original, Forward Thinking, Bare Bones Design is Concerned with SIMPLICITY of Primitive and Primal Esthetics.

Ten (10) to Twenty (20) years in the Hoosegow is about Survival amongst Animalistic Mentality's.

Ten (10) to Twenty (20) years in a Design Career is about Survival amongst Animalistic Mentality's.

I know nothing of the Former can Attest to the Latter.

Longevity of Design Survival and Hoosegow Survival are Governed by Darwinism.



scary, but handsome to look at:
tom zabriskie

As we enter the weekend, enter a kinder gentler "shiv". An excerpt from today's NYT/US section follows. Note, the article in its entirety is less than kind. -Chris

Prison Disciplines Inmate Who Paints With M&Ms

"[Mr. Johnson] has been in solitary confinement in a small concrete cell for almost two decades. He paints with a brush he created with plastic wrap, foil and his own hair. He makes paint by leaching the colors from M&M's in little plastic containers that once held packets of grape jelly. His canvases are postcards."

Chris Kasabach

'...if you do that again I'll take my shiv out of my Bin and Spike you in the Derby, you Cun.'

Just a case of: "Doin what ya gotta do" and "Making do with what you have" ---nothing more---get over it.

Very interesting, to say the least....
Ahole Erice


Although these shivs were taken from a max-hardcore prison, it makes ya wonder about the majority of prisons, who house dangerous people as well as those who have committed victimless crimes, such as marijuana violations.
Nicolai Brown

Fascinating. Thanks for the peculiar post!
Doug Karr

It was noted in cryptogram (which links this site and how I found it) that this is a demonstration of how silly the airport ban on knives and box cutters is. Many of these are easily as dangerous as any professionally made knife. Especially in the hands of one trained to fight with a knife.

A few of these could even easily be carried in past airport security more easily today than the 9/11 hijackers got their boxcutters in. Plastic or glass will cut you just as well as metal. Others could be made inside.

I must admit the photo of the 16-year-old suicide bomber shown in the Media Education Foundation's video 'Peace, Propaganda and The Promised Land,' is somehow synonymous with these shivs.
Sadly, having been used as a weapon against oppressors of the desperate Palestinian people— isn't she beautiful in the same twisted way?

Why don't Arab Americans in the United States or Palestinian sympathizers engage in peaceful resistance by celebrating the anniversary of the passage of U.N. Resolution 242 of 1967, with a 2k, 5k or 10k run?

i've been having students design weapons as part of my interactive design coursework for a few years. i've continued with the assignment because of how well the exercise 'performs' as an educational tool. it helps to broaden their understanding of design. and generates incredibly rich discussions.

on another note, see the book 'Home-made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts'. incredibly beautiful objects made in desperate poverty.

doug lloyd

Not to be nit picky but the weapons shown are not all shivs. In prison there are basically four types of weapons. Shivs which are also known as flats. It is any thing to stab someone with that is flat. Then there are shanks, which are also known as rods. It is anything round such as a nail, pencil, etc. Then there are slashers. These are weapons made to cut, & most are made with razor blades, the most common being a blade in a toothbrush. For some reason homosexuals love to arm themselves with slashers. Then there are clubing type weapons, the most common being a lock in a sock. However, anything with weight in a sock will work. Then there are also the odd weapons that people think up such as zip guns, bombs made with matches, spears, blow guns, etc.
Some weapons are made with pride, & show good work, but most are basic. I know this stuff from over 15 years in & out of Calif. jails, & prisons. Good site, & subject, loved looking at the pics, & reading the comments.
Ken Connor

I used to make bombs in jail. Roll an over-sized magazine (Life or Look made especially powerful bombs) around a pencil. Fold one end over and tie it off with a strip of linen torn from a bed sheet and remove the pencil. Tear off the heads of matches from many, many, many, books of matches, (back in the 70's we could smoke) and fill the hollow tube. Fold the other end over, tie off, etc. Carve a very small V-shaped slit anywhere to expose a bit of matchhead, place lit cigerette on slit, (the timer and fuse) and walk, (don't run) away. KA-TA-THA-BOOM!!! Later, I worked in the waste treatment center and discovered the wonders of that silvery sodium substance that ...well... my next job was on the chain gang. Hey, it was Florida. (I threw about a pound of that stuff in one of the treatment ponds. Not much of a BOOM but the smoke blanketed several acres like some sort of fog bank rolling in fast.)
Funny story:
I smuggled some of that sodium whatever-it's-called into the dorm and spilled some next to my bunk. People coming from the showers walked past my bed, dripping water on the sodium that I missed. A pinhead of that stuff is like a firecracker going off when it comes in contact with water. Another one of those unexplained prison phenomena, I guess, 'cause I was never nailed for it.
Carstairs "Sweet Dick" Bagly, Jr.

Anything that evokes emotion or a deeper response, which was modified by man, could be considered art. I'd say that these evoked quite a bit of emotion, at least for me.

how are these "photographs", as opposed to a lazy artist laying curated material onto a scanner bed? i don't think there's anything thought-provoking going on here, just more and more pillaging of well-worn territory in the continuing gentrification of the indeliberate. what an overwrought joke.
truth hurts

this is a shame before god how these people live in prison with such tools to kill with or protect themself. The money that the officers make should be very good, because they don't know if they will see daylight again. they may get killed in the line of work.To whom this may concern if you work for a prison, please have god with you at all times.You need him wheather you are on a job or at home, time has gotten so bad.We need people to start praying about imporant things and not foolish things.People are working these bad job in a prison , it is not fair that they get underpaid.take this to Mr.Bush and tell him to do something about this, and let god handle the war in Iraq.
the truth

dudes i no how to make a switch blade shank out of a cd case and a thin peice of tin or metal...


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