The Eye

A Stunning 20-Year Prison Diary Etched Into Ostrich Eggs

Gil Batle carved a 20-year prison diary into the surfaces of ostrich eggs. Shown here is one of a series of eggs depicting his time at California’s Jamestown State Prison, which he says was the worst of the bunch. 

Courtesy of Ricco/Maresca

San Francisco native Gil Batle spent 20 years in five different California prisons for fraud and forgery. Behind bars he used his self-taught skills as an artist to keep him safe from gang violence by designing tattoos, portraits, and greeting cards for fellow inmates. (Batle isn’t the first inmate to use his artistic skills as a survival mechanism, like this Philadelphia man who made a gigantic contraband mural while incarcerated.)

5150 Dreams
Batle carved a series of eggs depicting sleeping prisoners, who were referred to as “5150,” California police code for an involuntary psychiatric hold for people deemed a danger to themselves or others. 

Courtesy of Ricco/Maresca

The 53-year-old Filipino American now lives in the Philippines, where he has spent the past few years carving a 20-year prison diary into the surfaces of dozens of ostrich shells. The diary depicts his own haunting stories of prison life and those of the murderers, drug dealers, and armed robbers he served time with. “Hatched in Prison: The Art of Gil Batle” is an exhibition opening in New York City on Friday that showcases the artist’s extraordinarily meticulous work.

Its Your Fault 2
A series of eggs titled “It’s Your Fault” depict the cycle of violence that for many of Batle’s fellow inmates started at home before continuing in prison. 

Courtesy of Ricco/Maresca

In prison, Batle built clandestine tattoo guns with motors from CD players or electric toothbrushes and made tattoo ink by melting chess pieces, trapping the soot in a paper bag and mixing it with shampoo or lotion.

Reception -New Fish
One of a series of eggs about the intake process for new inmates. 

Courtesy of Ricco/Maresca

These days, Batle’s medium of choice is the pristine surface of an ostrich egg shell. He selects a theme for each egg before penciling in the horizontal and vertical lines that allow him to frame out a grid for his designs, noting that perfect symmetry does not exist in a world where no egg is exactly the same as any other.

Gang Chart 2
From a series of eggs depicting mug shots of members of some of the racially divided gangs Batle encountered in California prisons. 

Courtesy of Ricco/Maresca

He then carves characters, icons, and scenes separated by images of chain-link fencing, razor wire, and handcuffs into the shells with a dentist’s drill.

A series of eggs called “Jargon” alludes to the hidden messages that inmates and their friends and families used in written communication to avoid censorship by prison staff monitoring their correspondence. 

Courtesy of Ricco/Maresca

At first glance, the carved eggshells could pass for ancient artifacts until you look carefully at the subject matter: suicides and stabbings, fights and race riots, cavity searches, and other trials and tribulations of prison life.  

Process egg

One of Batle’s ostrich egg carvings in progress.  


Courtesy of Norman Brosterman

“I actually have to go back (mentally) to prison to capture that feel of being inside that place,” Batle said in a project description. “It’s a relief of gratitude when I look up from the egg and I’m reminded that I’m not in there anymore.”

One of a series of eggs called “Sanctuary” depicts Batle’s sentiment that whether they are locked up or back on the streets, “convicts are never free” from fear, he says. 

Courtesy of Ricco/Maresca