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Joseph Tecson: From Incarceration to Artistic Freedom

Joseph Tecson is gaining some ground in the art industry. He has been showing with leading galleries in Manila such as 1335 Mabini and West Gallery and lately has been regularly showing with Taiwanese gallery, Nunu Fine Art. Although he is self taught, his roots in creativity are evident through his family and the nature of their business. They run a design and build company that specializes in staging and construction, design and graphics and production of fine arts requirements.

Joseph shares his story of how he ended up in jail, when in 2004, he was arrested for being involved in operations dealing with illegal substances in Alabang and Quezon City. The story was capitalized by the media, and the case was so big that it was elevated to the office of the president, who was firmly against the release of the incarcerated young men. They were labelled the “Alabang Boys”, and they were living proof that the Philippine justice system can be fair (at times). They were used as the perfect example of privileged kids coming from families with money and connection and that they are not above the law.

Joseph recalls a very close relationship with his parents, and how adolescence, his youth and vices destroyed it. This is a story of a nightmare turning into a dream far beyond Joseph’s imagination.

Grounded: What is your relationship with your parents like?

Joseph: We are very okay now. We’ve had our best and worst times. My parents are very religious and hard working, and we were very close when I was a kid. They are the type who will put us in bed and make sure to guide us in our homework and fetch us from school everyday.


Grounded: Joseph is the middle child between 4 other boys.

Joseph: During my high school days something happened. It might be because of bad barkada's and also maybe because of rock death metal music and beautiful hot young chics that I began to disobey them. Then there’s satan who started to offer and teach me to use all these different substances, and through the years, my relationship with my parents went sour. I abused many things and that took a toll on our relationship. We didn’t talk as much as before and I hid a lot of things from them.

And then the worst part happened. I went to jail and our relationship was destroyed. Both my mom and dad were very mad at me and their trust was totally gone. They are the type of parents that don’t do anything wrong. They don’t have vices. So it was painful for me to know that I gave them a problem that they never deserved. If ever you meet my parents, you’ll see how good they are and I hate myself for putting them in that situation.

Grounded: Joseph was incarcerated (not convicted) for four years and twenty days. He shares with us the experience of when he was caught.

Joseph: I felt scared. I thought I would be released that day, but when I saw the car of my co-accused full of gunshots and bullet holes, I lost hope. I remember passing out on the couch waiting for my lawyer or a family member to show up.


Grounded: Did you make any friends while you were in jail?

Joseph: Yes, of course, a lot. I now have killer hitman friends, drug lords, rapists, bad cops. Kung hindi ka marunong makisama sa luob ng kulungan, you’re dead.


Grounded: When we asked Joseph about when he started liking art, he shares with us stories from childhood and explains how art saved him in jail.

Joseph: I started seeing and recognising art at a very young age since my father was in love with art. He’s a design and architecture graduate, but all his book collections were from different artists, painters, sculptors, and many more. When we’d go abroad he never failed to bring us to different museums all over the world. I have photos of me at three years old standing next to De Kooning, Matisse, Polke and Kiefer. Even though my dad loved art, I myself never had any interest.

I grew up next to our library at home and I never opened a single book to read up on these art legends. That was until I went to jail. My interest in art started in jail. It was my brother and my father who helped and pushed me to do drawings and paintings while I was there. They supported me by bringing in books and art materials.

Grounded: Joseph shares with us that his intentions in creating art are pure.

Joseph: It was for the sake of just creating art.


Grounded: He admits that he did not even know any gallery nor did he ever think one would actually sell his art.

Joseph: I was just so passionate and focused at what I was doing that I created almost two hundred paintings during my time in jail. It was the darkest time of my life and I’m happy now that I managed to find inspiration while I as there. I guess that’s what you’d call a beautiful disaster.

Grounded: Tell us about your experience of your first show while you were in jail.

Joseph: I did not know the art industry outside of jail. I had no idea how it worked- the people, the socials- the audience, collectors, artists, curators, galleries- as in totally wala ako alam at lalo na the business side of it. What I only knew is my art and that’s it. So when there was an exhibition of my paintings in a gallery in Katipunan, I didn’t really care about what a good thing it was in terms of selling my art.

So there I was, painting inside of jail. All I felt was hopelessness and sadness. Even if I was proud of the opportunity of an exhibition, it meant nothing. Jail is so bad for anyone that you can’t even think to appreciate any opportunities that come your way. The case was such a huge deal at that time, I knew there was no way I was getting out. An exhibition is nothing to be proud of while in jail. Who cared anyways? No one in jail even knew what it meant.

I painted because I wanted to do something special for myself and my fellow inmates. Painting gave me the feeling of feeling free even in the worst place on earth.

I agreed to the exhibition because it was a good thing for me, and my family really wanted me to pursue it. I would do anything for them to be happy. I had nothing to lose, I was already in jail. My brother Jason Tecson and my artist friend Pow Martinez organized everything for me. I will never stop thanking those two people.

Grounded: Do you believe in God?

Joseph: Yes! I believe that sometimes God allows hardships to happen in order to heal us. During my worst moments, I realized that I was able to become even closer to my parents. Things (like going to jail) can make people better. My parents never gave up on me and I never lost hope on our situation. We also got even closer in our relationship with God during this time as well. Within the four years and twenty days that I was incarcerated, there were so many miracles that happened, and an overflowing of blessings that we received. When I got out of jail, I had an even better relationship with my parents. Of course, it’s not easy to forget the worst, but the worst made all of us stronger and wiser.


Grounded: It was 2012 when Joseph was released from jail and acquitted from his charges.

Joseph: I had my first solo exhibition in West Gallery, the title of the show was “Destroy the Cages”, it was a very unforgettable experience, but it was also very intense.


Grounded: What were you feeling during the early days of exhibiting your works, while finally out of jail?

Joseph: My works were very dark and violent when I started. I remember it being hard to please collectors. I only made a few sales. No honey money, no party.

I also realized that it’s impossible to please everyone. If the viewer shares my vision, then I say “thank you”. But if they don’t, then it’s too bad for them- or too bad for me. I just didn’t want to betray myself. I did not want to flatter the viewer or flatter myself either. During my first few years as an artist, it was just so pure. I was doing it for nothing but for my art.

Grounded: On October 2014, Joseph was selected to participate in the “artist in residence” program at WhiteSpaceBlackBox in Neuchātel, Switzerland. He was the first artist to participate in the program, during which he created 20 portraits of 20 personalities. All these portraits were exhibited along with 20 portraits of inmates that he painted in jail.

Joseph: An art scout named Silvie Siedlitz of Art Alliance went to Manila to find an artist to represent WhiteSpaceBlackBox, a very exclusive gallery and art residency in Switzerland. Her job was to find asian artists. Silvie also found artists Ai Wei Wei and Zhang Zhuan, who are now superstar asian artists. She told me that she just googled the ten best galleries in Manila.

Fortunately for me, the gallery of my brother made it to the list. She said she went to eight galleries before going to my brother’s gallery. She saw my works and sent me an invitation for an interview in Switzerland.

After a few months, they flew me to Switzerland where I had my first solo exhibition. I was interviewed by patrons and they handed me a contract to sign. I did my residency for two months. My job was to paint portraits. Everyday I painted different personalities on the spot. I would paint one portrait a day. I remember painting very interesting people, like the owner of the brand Opel cars, the adviser of the Vladimir Putin, and top fashion designers.

The opportunity was one big blessing that I know came from God. It was all planned by Him. Maybe because I was a bad guy he brought me to see hell, which is life in jail. When I became a better person he also rewarded me with a place where I can see the alps and I know that heaven is just right above.


Grounded: Now, a regular day in Joseph’s life means waking up at eight in the morning to bring his daughter to school and get to the office by eleven. At the end of the day, he paints if there is time.

Joseph: I paint to stay healthy! When I paint I move so much that I feel like a waiter in a fast food restaurant.


Grounded: What are insecurities that you still struggle with today?

Joseph: The fact that people know I came from jail and that I am immediately judged as being a bad person.


Grounded: Share with us some of the books you love.

Joseph: The Beach by Alex Garland, P.C books, art books.

Grounded: What do you think of social media?

Joseph: It’s a great tool for anyone who wants to be famous or for anyone who wants to sell something. It has it’s pros and cons but it gets corny if you are into it too much.


Grounded: Will you name some of your favourite artists for us?

Joseph: Kiefer, Van Gogh, Yan Pei Ming, Barcelo, Gheinie. Pow, Langgenger, Concepcion. Lao Lianbien and Oca Villamael. Jigger Cruz.


Grounded: What keeps you Grounded?

Joseph: I never forget the hard times and always remember the good times.


Grounded: What inspires you?

Joseph: The darkness and tragedies of this world.


Grounded: What advice can you give aspiring young artists?

Joseph: Never stop painting. Even if no one likes your work, just keep on going. Decide on your destiny and remember that you can be anything you want. And every action taken is a step towards the destiny you decide on.

Life is full of ups and downs and unexpected turns. Nothing is permanent, all is transient. No matter how hopeless a situation may seem, things pass and things always work out for our greater good if we just follow our heart.