"The Drug War"





The Drug War is an art installation by artist/activist Anthony Papa.  It is a multi-media presentation that visually portrays some of the most compelling drug war issues in the news.  The visual narratives in the installation are powerful reminders of the raging war on drugs that ravages many of our communities.

“The use of art as a political weapon is not new,” says Papa who discovered his political awareness through his art and has used his art as a vehicle to fight the drug war.  “Through history, the role of the artist as a social commentator has been invaluable.  Art is a great vehicle for expressing views to others in a way that is unmatched in any other media outlet for its truthfulness”. 

“Like Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and Goya’s ‘Third of May,’ which both powerfully portrayed the atrocities of war, my installation follows their lead in revealing the impact of Americas drug war. 

Papa spent 12 years in prison for a first time non-violent drug offense.  While imprisoned, he discovered his artistic talent.  In 1995, after a showing of his art at the Whitney Museum, his case attracted national attention.  Two years later, New York Governor George Pataki granted Papa executive clemency.  Papa currently works for the Drug Policy Alliance.

The installation highlights issues that affect all Americans, whether they use drugs or not.  It is steeped in a continuous motif of an upside down American flag, which signifies the universal concept of the state of distress in war.

 “Justice in Black and White” shows the racial imbalance of the effects of the New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws.  Ninety-four percent of those incarcerated under the laws are black and Latino.  Ten crying babies dress in prison garb dangle in front of their incarcerated mothers and ask “where are our mothers?”

 “Two Years in Jail for One Joint” shows the madness of the drug war.  Mitchell Lawrence, an 18-year-old was sentenced to two years in jail for one joint by an over zealous prosecutor in Massachusetts.  A single golden joint sits in a silver jewelry box surrounded by dozens of candles

 “Give Them All Dirty Needles and Let Them Die” - taken from the cruel quote of TV’s “Judge Judy” - boldly illustrates how New Jersey is the only U.S. state that lacks a needle exchange program.  Dozens of bloodied syringes penetrate a coffin draped with the New Jersey flag.

" In Cops or Docs” a marijuana plant asks the question who should decide what medicine we should put in our bodies.

Papa hopes the installation raises awareness for those in mainstream society who rarely think about the drug war.

“I use my art as a means of visually translating the deep emotional responses of the human condition.  My life choices forced me to discover my hidden artistic talent.  In the same way I try to make that intuitive connection with the viewer by living through my work, breaking down barriers that separate us from truth.” ...Anthony Papa


Venues that  " The Drug War"  were shown

2002  Lunatarium Brooklyn NY (below)

2006 Oakland, CA - Noted artist, activist and author Anthony Papa will highlight the casualties of the war on drugs at an art installation during the Harm Reduction Coalition conference in Oakland November 9-12.  The Harm Reduction Coalition conference brings together hundreds of drug policy reform advocates from across the country to discuss effective public health approaches to dealing with drug use and misuse.  The conference will take place November 9-12 at the Marriot Hotel, Oakland City Center, 10001 Broadway, Oakland ,CA 94607

2007   John Jay College : On the Edge: Transgression and the Dangerous Other  



John Jay Security team ordering me to take down my upside down American flags at John Jay College of Criminal Justice compelled me to write about the experience on my Huffington Post blog.


Country in Distress: The Upside Down Flag

August 9, 2007

I am an American. I used to be a proud one. This was before a realization that hit me hard concerning the casualties of a dirty war. I am not talking about the war in Iraq. I am talking about the other war -- the war on drugs. Every day, we see news stories that expose the realities of drug use in America. From celebrities to politicians to athletes and even ordinary people purchasing cold medication, the drug war looms large.

Recently, I was invited to show my art at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. The venue was right up my alley. The two-day conference brought together art, music, film and spoken-word performances centered on the theme, "A New Criminology for the 21st century." I decided to create an art installation called, "The Drug War."

The art installation was a multimedia presentation of the most compelling drug war issues in the news. Its use of visual narratives reminds us of the war on drugs that ravages our communities. The installation began to take form, steeped in a motif of an upside down American flag, which signifies the universal concept of the state of distress during war. Several irate people stopped me to ask if I had permission from the administration to "disgrace" the American flag. I told them all I had a constitutional right to voice my opinion.

About two hours later a security team approached me. The leader of the team said "Mr. Papa, you must immediately take down the upside-down flags. I have been getting complaints from faculty and students saying that you are disgracing the flag." I looked at her and pointed out that I was doing nothing wrong. My art was not disrespecting "old glory" because I displayed the upside-down flag for the right reasons. According to the flag code section 36, U.S.C. chapter 10, I was correct in my intentions of stating a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property. She looked at me with indifference while the four men stood behind her standing in a military stance meant to intimidate me.

I immediately explained my position. I told her about the 500,000 Americans who were behind bars because of the war on drugs, and how this war ravages communities and destroys lives, all in the name of a drug-free society. I explained how billions of dollars are spent by the government to stop someone from putting substances in their bodies.

I looked at her and then the guards while pointing at the flags and said "I will not take the flags down."

The head of security huddled with her crew while several sympathetic professors came to my aid. A meeting took place and it was agreed that they had to take this to a higher authority. I was asked to stop building my art installation while we waited for a verdict from the president of the university. During that time, I had a flash back to 12 years ago when something similar occurred in a maximum security prison in New York when I was doing a 15-years-to-life sentence for passing an envelope containing four ounces of cocaine in return for $500. My art was confiscated by the prison guards, who told me I could not send out paintings to the free world that depicted the atrocity of imprisonment.

My mind snapped back to the present moment when one of the security guards tapped me on the shoulder. He said that a decision was made and I was allowed to display the upside down flags. I shook his hand and turned to the American flags and thought about the greatness of our Constitution, which guarantees the freedom to express our opinions, even if it meant turning the flag on its head to make a point.




“Give Them All Dirty Needles and Let Them Die”


“Two Years in Jail for One Joint”












"American Dream, American Tragedy :Faces of the Drug War"

On April 20, 2002 Anthony Papa displayed an art installation titled: "American Dream, American Tragedy :Faces of the Drug War"  at the Lunatarium in Brooklyn NY.

A fifty foot tent was built out of the American flag and filled with objects portraying the reality of the drug war and its affect on society. Preston Peet editor of Drug War.com described the installation  as  "brilliantly hard-hitting"

Below are some examples of the slide show.   Clicking Here  for a  power point presentation.