In 1982 I was sentenced to three years in federal prison for making counterfeit birth certificates for undocumented persons so they could work legally, and their children attend school in the U.S. The Feds said they wished they could hire me because my counterfeit skills were some of the best they’d ever seen, instead they said, ‘Sorry, but we have to arrest you.’
After being locked down with people who had committed horrendous crimes, I realized what I did was legally wrong, but surely prison didn’t have to be the only solution.
I entered prison as a basically nice and funny person and released a year later as an awkward member of the ranks of the societally shunned and permanently disgraced.
My prison record made it so I could no longer work unless I lied about becoming #12605-077. Prison was a horrible experience, but life after became much worse. I left prison with my final monthly paycheck of $7.00 (16 cents an hour). My job was to unload semi-trailers with my bare hands. I was shocked to see the food boxes eight years out of date, thrown inside, donated to feed us inmates, smashed open with forklift tire tracks.
I just needed to work when I was released, but with a prison record I sadly was faced with the unfamiliar struggle also of making it back into society’s so-called ‘good graces.’ I had no choice but to try to work for myself and train others like me to help, thus sharing the knowledge I had received.
I was so ashamed and made a vow right then never to be broke ever again. No more $7 paychecks, no matter what it took to make it legally. But no doors ever opened for me for employment. All I heard was, “We’ll get back with you.” But after hearing I had been in prison, they never did. I decided it was up to me to create my own stability.
A friend told me if I could design him a logo, he’d let me print his T-shirts. An industry leader, Don Hazard became my Angel mentor and taught me everything he could about screen printing. As manager of a huge equipment company in Dallas, he only knew me for a couple of hours, but after hearing my story, he wanted to ‘give back’ by ‘lonating’ me thousands of dollars of equipment. The best part was, he agreed to let me pay him back with income from actual jobs he would teach me to print. His kindness and my hard work paid off everything in a few months. Learning from a Master taught me tricks of the trade that no school ever could. In 1984 there were no schools or in this miraculous ‘fast money’ field. I was fascinated with the challenges and never ending opportunities that outweighed any job I’d ever heard of. Once, in four hours flat and a material cost of $300 I printed my first large signage job manually on a $40 table and made a clear profit of $2500! I decided right that second to be a printer forever, and I have been. When I was released from prison my only transportation was a motorcycle I had before I went in. Soon I was at least able to buy an old $400 Ford, and my client list grew enormously partly because I was humble to drive around in it. My hands and clothes always had ink on them. They loved that! To them it meant I worked for them and it earned their respect, which translated to every year doubling in sales from $22,000 till I said ‘enough business already!’ I wanted to give back what was given to me.
I wanted my client’s projects to create training opportunities for others, like Don did for me. I decided to form a non-profit 501c3 Tax Exempt charity instead of a ‘for profit.’ People said I was crazy but I wanted to keep the doors open without begging for donations or writing continual grant requests from major funders who showed little interest in helping broken lives of people living “in the trenches.” In October 1994, I officially received the 501c3 Charitable status. It has been recognized all this time as Bajito Onda Community Development Foundation. Many years later, out of the desire to reach behind prison walls and teach job skills to pre-release inmates, the program Prisoners for Progress was founded. We produced window signage for many prison office doors such as the warden, chaplain, education department, stock room, etc. My focus has always been to reach out to the excluded and oppressed members of society in order to mentor them in a creative, peaceful, all-inclusive environment. A hands-on therapeutic life skills printing school to teach ex-prisoners, homeless, veterans, victims of abuse, physically or mentally challenged, literacy and language challenged, youth at risk, survivors of society, socially marginalized persons the skills of ‘old school, yet ‘master level’ graphics and production.
Bajito Onda was the recipient of the Texas Governor’s Award for outstanding leadership. A four time United Nations Presenter and many other awards.
After twenty years I, myself achieved “Master Screen Print Educator” with quite a professional following. It was a win, win, win. The more we worked, the more programs we developed and more ‘fallen lives could be lifted up, dusted off and empowered.
My knack for designing logos and printing special projects for the most difficult-to-please clients has honed my marketing skills. The attention to detail, and ease which I could anticipate a client’s needs, allowed me to grow from the humble beginning in a 10x20 foot portable building in my backyard in 1984 to a ten thousand square foot luxury industrial space in East Dallas.
I became an expert in screening as well as digital, offset, and direct to garment. Prisoners began donating art for the Bajito Onda Prison art licensed Trademarked fashions. Urban Edgy Fashion Design and Apparel Printing, and was made possible through the donation of a state-of-the-art, high speed, eight color, ultra-precise M&R Sportsman. My humble dreams came true. I truly have ‘walked the vision.’
With the help of thousands of people on court-ordered community service over the years, my print shop training center has been able to mentor people from all walks of life at no salary expense to Bajito Onda Foundation and provided a great service for Spanish-speaking individuals lacking English skills as well as work skills. Their life choices and experiences, like my own, allowed us to function as a team of “productive misfits” capable of creating incredible graphics for major corporations who would not hire us as an employee otherwise.
However, after decades of transforming lives with histories resembling my own, the burden of it all finally got to me and caused me to suffer a major mental breakdown in Texas.
The continual loss of so many lives and futures by violence and returns to prison in Dallas took such a huge toll on me because I could no longer personally mentor all the fallen lives being sent to me by other agencies with no outside major funding. I had created a very successful hands-on ‘highly therapeutic’ re-integration program based on inclusion and skills training.
A dear board member of Bajito Onda suggested I leave Dallas and get out while I still had my life and some sanity. I had never thought of abandoning my ‘Calling’ or even taking a break from it, but it made sense for me to save myself so I could replicate Bajito Onda elsewhere.
After careful consideration, the Dallas-Ft Worth original chapter became history and a big milestone when I walked out and closed the doors to that chapter. That was 2008.
After an invitation to Tucson Christmas that year for the holidays I found myself coming right back out here on heading away from Dallas to what seemed like my personal salvation. That week’s visit turned into a permanent move within the month.
Tucson, would become my new global base of training programs so well known in Dallas. The lives I would mentor in the desert would be Native Americans from the many reservations, immigrants and refugees, homeless, veterans, ex-prisoners, people serving court ordered community service for DUI, theft, traffic violations, etc. I just needed a fresh audience of clients to match my training skills.
I soon met a glassblower who asked if I could create logos for glass artists and he told me if I could, it could be my new future and a major funding.
I was immediately down for it but I quickly realized I knew nothing about glass blowing, glass, COE, or millimeters. I knew literally a BIG NOTHING! But it did make perfect sense to me that if there are thousands of glass artists in the US alone who didn’t have branding, then there could be truth in what he was saying. He certainly was desperate to get logos that didn’t rub off like he frustratedly showed me. He pointed to a whole shelf of misfired glass with his logos partially rubbed off. Thousands of dollars in glass and labor, down the drain. “It’s way too common,” he said.
I put myself in the place of glass blowers seeking fail-proof water slide logos. I detested the thought of so much new research and development to ever get it under my belt after all those years of conquering other forms of printing, but at the same time it was just what I needed to challenge a fresh me and a special printing niche to be able to train persons here in Tucson.
I quickly found it to be impossible to accomplish and I gave up hundreds of head shaking times! No matter what I did with the powders or inks they too rubbed right off. However, I’m stubborn and refused to accept failure! I had to develop only the best for my new audience! Glass inks were not common like t-shirt or signage inks to my expertise. But my curiosity and the love to support Bajito Onda, always made me get right back after it. I tried to learn from other artists but they spoke in glass lingo. It drove me crazy. However, there was one thing they all had in common. They all needed a design, or an original logo, and I was glad to do it for them if they would only let me make their decals.
My entire life I wanted to be a graphic designer without ever attending college or formal training. The ‘need to succeed’ was what has always drive me. With an easy understanding of creating complete themes of logos, signage, fashion, stickers, decals, product and typesetting to combine any desired impact for my client’s audience. Nothing had ever stopped me before with the wisdom of my mentor, Don Hazard. But now, he had passed away and I was on my own in a strange place, with a massive but creatively endless market. I soon found out there were thousands of glass artists as well as scientific blowers that all had the need as well as the funds for quality water slide logos, branding and markings.
Glass… however situated me into a place I’d never experienced in all my decades of printing. I definitely saw where I could fit in, if I could ever master all the new terminologies, processes and science that came along with it.
I was used to printing a garment or a sign, where I could see the finished product right then. With printing for glass transfers I had no idea about firing them after printing. I didn’t even have a kiln for over a year. Then I realized, ‘I need a kiln to test them so I could see how they were being used.’ Printing beautiful logos just wasn’t enough. However, I really appreciated it when I received input, such as they didn’t like the cover coat because it was yellow or too thin. Their feedback frustrated me to no end. But I appreciated it and with each one, I immediately sought a better solution. After two long years of costly trial and error the complaints eventually turned into compliments.
I was reminded often about the few other printers who had fifty years’ experience. But one day someone called and said they had been referred to the ‘other decal printer’. I thought, ‘well at least somebody knows I’m out here.’ And that was the beginning!
Glassblowers, are amazing artists of another incredible dimension, no one else seemed to have the patience and expertise to work their ideas into logos, graphics or signatures, etc. There was very little artist branding back then.
'A light bulb went off, and I thought, since I love taking client ideas and making logos ‘Well then, I’ll be the Artist to the Artists in my new glass industry career’. After all, my end product, was a piece of water slide paper with designer color logos or designs intricately printed on them. I called that step ‘the magic moment’ when my work of art fused permanently into the artist’s glass work of art.ARTIST'S WORK FEATURED IN THE ARTICLE.
- Belen Ortiz, Glass artist / @roothound_glass
- John Williams, Functional Glass Artist / @williams_glass 360-259-7875
- ‘Glass by Snodgrass’ / @bobsnodgrass1946 / www.snodgrass.net
- Robert Mickelsen / Glass Artist
- Sagan / Mars Curiosity Rover, Functional Glass
- Jennifer Caldwell, Glass Artist @jenniferecaldwell / www.jennifercaldwell.com