The Clash of the TitansBeading, Art, and Incarceration
by Michael J. Moore
Big Six stands six feet three inches tall and weighs 250 pounds.
His head is shaved and often dripping sweat as he lies on his back, pressing more than four hundred pounds off his chest. He’s serving four consecutive life sentences for a quadruple drug-related homicide that took place in 2010. He was also charged with felony gun possession and extortion, which earned him his third strike. He has a reputation, both on the streets and in prison, as a leader of Tacoma’s 46 Neighborhood Crips, and as one of the most notoriously violent prisoners in Washington State. As we sit at a metal table in one of four day rooms in the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) and he tells me about his life, however, I’m struggling to find the link between who Big Six is said to be and the gentle giant across from me.
Artistic expression, he tells me, is the reason.
“Beading brings me calm,” Six explains. “It lets me focus on something besides prison. It’s made me mature, taught me patience, and given me something to do instead of dwelling on hatred for my captors.”
I can’t help but wonder where Six would be today had such a source of calm been introduced into his life earlier.
“I was never in danger of going to college or becoming a rocket scientist,” he says, “but I am a mechanic, which means I put thing together and make things. It’s the act of creating, and if I’d had a positive outlet like art, growing up, I would have ran with it.”
Born John Booth on June 24, 1979, in Centralia, Washington, he practically took his first steps along the road that would lead him to this dismal place. His parents split when he was four, and while his brother was sent to live with their mother, Six remained with an abusive criminal father.
“My dad was an outlaw biker and a drummer in a rock and roll band,” he tells me. “He sold weed, partied all the time, and always beat the shit outta me. I basically grew up on the back of his Harley.”
At twelve, Six was already bigger than some of the men in his Tacoma neighborhood, and he was always prepared for a fight.
“The problem,” he recalls, “was that they couldn’t beat me up, so they would end up jumping me. That’s what ultimately led to me joining a gang. I always knew I was gonna be an outlaw anyway. It just so happened the time was right, and I became a Crip.”
Soon after, he landed in a juvenile prison for stealing a car and taking police on a high-speed pursuit. It was there that he met other boys his age, who were also immersed in the criminal element.
“I was surprised to see that these kids looked up to me. Soon, we started getting out, and now we all knew each other and wanted a piece of what everybody was doing. It used to baffle me that they didn’t have the proper connections. They couldn’t get guns, but I was a full-blown gang member and had more guns than I knew what to do with.”
Six assembled his new friends into a squad and oversaw operations that included but weren’t limited to selling drugs, robbing drug dealers, and collecting criminal-related debts for a percentage of what was owed. He earned his first adult prison sentence in 1996 for unlawful possession of a firearm, got his GED, and was released a year later with no new job or coping skills.
“My dad picked me up with cold beers in the truck,” he recounts, “but he’d sold all my belongings, so I didn’t have anything. I had to completely start over.”
Over the course of the next fifteen years, he bounced in and out of the system and climbed the ranks within the Neighborhood Crips—until that deadly night in 2010 claimed his life in the free world as well.
“Once the system did its job and I had life in prison, I doubled down,” Six says. “Where I was a full-blown gangster before, now I became the leader of prison gangs.”
Due to the nature of his convictions, he was housed in maximum-security facilities where he was locked in his cell twenty-two hours a day, with little to do but prepare for the brutality that took place when the steel doors finally opened. With limited resources, he began looking for a way to make money. A friend from his social circle was managing to generate a decent income selling beadwork, so Six asked him what kind of investment was needed to get started.
“It was substantial,” he remembers. “I raised the money quickly, though, and started collecting patterns and books. I taught myself how to bead out of books because I couldn’t be seen asking for help with anything. That would hurt my reputation. I was instantly hooked, though, and I finally had something to do besides create hate and discontent.”
But it wasn’t easy. For starters, Six has massive hands, and those beads are so small that they easily disappear when observed from a distance. But determined, he persevered and began to put his natural talent for creating into practice.
Soon after starting, he was found guilty of organizing gang meetings and put in segregation for six months, where he remained laser-focused on beading. He read books on the craft, acquired patterns, and daydreamed about future projects until he was finally released back into the general population. Then a series of high-profile fights that some within the incarcerated population dubbed “The Clash of the Titans” sent him back to segregation for the longest stretch he’d ever endured.
Six remembers of this time, “I continued to be consumed by beading. More books. More patterns. More daydreams….” One and a half painstaking years later, Six emerged into MCC, a medium-security prison where he could finally focus more on art and less on gang life.
It was here that a real transformation began in the giant. Though he can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, he’s convinced it was brought on by the meditative qualities and focus required to refine his process, which he asserts really isn’t a process at all.
“I just have to be doing something, and it can’t be something I don’t enjoy,” he says. “I genuinely enjoy making beautiful things. When I have an order and I can picture the person it’s going to, that’s what I do. I like the products to match the person.”
When he doesn’t have an order, he stays busy making his more popular products, such as hummingbirds and teddy bear necklaces. While other prisoners who bead tend to focus on two-dimensional medallions, Big Six’s items are almost exclusively 3-D decorative pieces.
Today, a glance through the bars of his six-by-nine-foot steel cage will usually reveal him sitting cross-legged on a bunk that’s smaller than he is, quietly bringing together his latest project. Where most of his neighbors hang pictures of half-naked women on their tack boards, his is covered in beaded necklaces, patterns, and a color wheel that he uses to determine which beads best blend together. He also has a store on Etsy, called americanbeadshop.
“Everything I make is in high demand around here, though a lot of it ends up selling before I can even send it out for my store.”
If Six’s story isn’t a testament to why artistic expression should be nurtured in prisons, I don’t know what is. As we wrap up this interview, I’m finding myself amazed at how even the tiniest of beads can inspire massive transformation in broken people.
About the Author
Michael J Moore’s books include Highway Twenty, which appeared on the preliminary ballot for the 2019 Bram Stoker Award; the bestselling postapocalyptic novel After the Change, which is used as curriculum at the University of Washington; the psychological thriller Secret Harbor; and his middle-grade horror series Nightmares in Aston. His work has received awards, has appeared in various anthologies, journals, newspapers (e.g. ,TheHuffPost and Business Insider), and magazines (e.g., The Nation), on television (with acclaimed newsman Carlos Watson and KPIX5), and has been adapted for theaters including Open Door Playhouse
Makers on Making illustration by Brian Dixon for BMP Voices. All rights reserved.
Makers on Making features printmakers, writers, knitters, crafters, painters, photographers, textile artists, and anyone else involved in art. These pieces delve into the psychology of making, the lessons we learn from success and (often more usefully) failure, and what it is to be a human authentically and emotionally involved as a maker in our world.