Timothy Curtis is a self-taught American artist who has gone from being a prison inmate, doing portraits of his fellow inmates, to an internationally acclaimed artist.
Early Life and Education
Timothy Curtis was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1982. His West Philly ‘tag’ was PIPE, given to him at age 9. Curtis began doing graffiti at a very young age, using faces as a tag and renaming himself Agua, the warning he heard Puerto Rican artists shout when they saw police approaching.
As a teenager, Curtis worked at the Miskeen clothing company, which made hand-painted clothing. It was there that he learned to paint and silkscreen. When the rival Dallas Cowboys came to play in Philly, he would make T-shirts that read F#*k Dallas Cowboys and sell them outside of the stadium.
The tradition of tagging graffiti with a variation of the Harvey Ball Smiley face dates back to the 1970s in Philadelphia. Curtis began compiling sketchbooks containing a wide variety of the face.
In 2008 Curtis was incarcerated and decided to use that time to study art history and hone his skills as an artist. He earned money in prison by drawing portraits of fellow inmates. Many of the prisoners received photos of family members and Curtis would take those photos and redraw them, inserting the inmate into the picture. The inmates would pay him, then take the drawings and send them to family members. Those portraits helped Curtis to master the art of creating faces with a wide range of features and emotions.
While he was in prison, his friend and fellow graffiti artist Steven Powers, made a film called A Love Letter For You. The film incorporated large mural project across the rooftops of the elevated train line in West Philly. One of the characters in the film was based on Timothy Curtis. Curtis spent seven years in prison, He was released, on parole, in 2015.
Curtis was released on November 11th, and on November 12th he was at the Brooklyn Museum, painting graffiti in a floor-to-ceiling exhibit called Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull). He was invited to join the graffiti artists, who painted while the public observed, by Powers.
He moved to his own studio in Brooklyn and had his first solo exhibit in November 2017 at Kaikai Kiki’s Hidari Zingaro gallery in Tokyo, Japan, curated by Takashi Murakami.
Curtis had his first solo show in New York with Albertz Benda and was featured in the group exhibition The Pencil is a Key curated by Claire Gilman at the Drawing Center in New York in 2019. His work was on exhibit at the New York Armory Show in 2020. He has an upcoming show at the K11 Gallery in Hong Kong.
Curtis’ works can be found in the permanent collections of the Lorenzo and Teresa Fertitta Collection in Las Vegas, the Pizzuti Collection in Columbus, Ohio and the Burger Collection in Hong Kong.
Joey Garfield. Timothy Curtis: Never One Day Not Having Fun. Juxtapoz Magazine. April 2017.
Deborah Vankin. A Shark Walks into a Bar. The Los Angeles Times. May 27, 2018.