Did you see, up in the sky? 80 artists sent messages over U.S. detention centers

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It is a Fourth of July custom. Fleets of airplanes take to the sky and produce massive typewritten messages in the air. Known as skytyping, these vaporous missives generally serve as advertising for music festivals, summer movies or car insurance and are often generated over public parks and crowded beaches.

Over the holiday weekend, however, some of those messages and their locations were quite out of the ordinary.

A group of 80 artists from around the country, led by rafa esparza and Cassils, teamed up to produce skytyped messages that appeared over immigrant detention camps around the United States, as well as other sites related to immigration, internment and incarceration.


The project, called “In Plain Sight,” lasted for four days beginning Friday morning and featured messages such as “ICE will melt,” “Care not cages” and “No more camps” displayed over sites such as the New Orleans field office for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Los Angeles County Jail and Santa Anita Park, which served as a temporary detention facility for Japanese Americans during World War II.

Also included were messages in Spanish, such as “No te rindas” (Don’t give up) written over the U.S. Customs and Border Protection outpost at the San Ysidro Port of Entry and one in the Mayan language of K’iche’, which materialized over the Donna Rio-Bravo International Bridge near McAllen, Texas. That message — “Ma ka qa xe’ij ta q’ib,” which translates to “We will not be afraid” — was organized by artist Beatriz Cortez and a coalition of Central American community organizations.

Cortez also organized a separate message on her own: “No cages, no jaulas,” which appeared in the clear blue skies over downtown Los Angeles on Friday afternoon.

“It’s exiting the confines of traditional art spaces and using the sky as the ultimate platform,” said esparza in advance of the project’s launch.

Added Cassils: “It’s thinking about how art can serve.”

It was also about producing a work that could have briefly been visible to those who are incarcerated as well.


The artists described the action as a vast collective artwork — albeit one with a distinct purpose. Each skytyped message featured the hashtag #XMAP, which led the curious back to the project’s website: That page features a list of all the participating artists and their respective sky messages, information about immigrant detention and a map of incarceration sites around the U.S., along with a list of organizations fighting for immigrant causes, such as the National Immigration Detention Bond Fund, which helps immigrants pay bonds set by immigration judges.

“You’ll also be able to put in your ZIP Code and see what detention center you’re closest to,” says esparza. “In terms of the sheer amount of immigrant detention centers — it’s something that people feel distant from. People place them along the border, but they don’t imagine them in every state. We want people to know that.”

Among the participating artists were Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors (whose message “Care not cages” appeared in downtown); Mexican singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas; graphic designer Emory Douglas, once the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party; and a range of cultural practitioners, including Ken Gonzales-Day, Harry Gamboa Jr., Mary Kelly, Susan Silton, Raquel Gutiérrez, Raven Chacon, Karen L. Ishizuka, Edgar Arceneaux, Cannupa Hanska Luger and Devon Tsuno.

Esparza, a Los Angeles artist whose work straddles performance, painting and installations crafted with handmade adobe, said the idea for “In Plain Sight” was born around July 4 last year amid rising concerns over the sheer number of incarcerated immigrants and the conditions they endure.

“There was a group of artists that had self-organized,” he explained. “We wanted to create visibility around immigrant detention.”


The group began discussing ideas in a group chat on Signal. Cassils, a multidisciplinary artist whose work engages issues of the body, gender and sexuality, was in Europe at the time — but was moved by the discussion.

“I’m from Montreal,” Cassils said. “Immigration has weighed on my life for a long time. It took me 17 years to immigrate and that was with all the resources. ... Navigating the immigration system and staying in compliance and the expense of it. The lack of ability for me to hire a lawyer. It was so incredibly difficult.

“I can’t imagine if you’re trying to do this while you are fleeing for your life. To land in this country that is supposed to be about freedom and they lock you in a cage for profit. That is appalling to me as a new citizen.”

Rather than doing a benefit show in a gallery or staging some sort of charity auction, the group wanted something that would make a big statement to the broadest audience possible. Skytyped messages emerged as an idea that could help an unseen problem (incarceration) be accessed by everyone.


“It also,” says Cassils, “seemed like a brilliant way to invert the terms of patriotism” — airplanes taking to the sky during Fourth of July.

So they got to work fundraising. Patching together donations from private supporters and arts organizations, the pair were able to generate the six figures necessary to put planes in the sky Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, for a total of 80 skytyped messages. But everything else has been a volunteer effort. Dozens of artists, along with uncounted others, have donated their time to make “In Plain Sight” happen.

Esparza said many were personally motivated to participate.

Guadalupe Rosales brings together fellow artists Nao Bustamante, Rafa Esparza, MPA and Zackary Drucker for video art screening online Sunday for LAND.

June 19, 2020

“There are folks whose family members were in incarceration camps during World War II,” he said. “There are folks who have relatives that were Holocaust survivors. And Black artists that use their work to talk about the prison industrial complex. We are all wanting to harness our voices to focus it on immigrant detention.”

Beyond the sky messages, “In Plain Sight” will exist in other ways. Documentarian PJ Raval and producer Farihah Zaman are filming a documentary series related to the project that will explore deeper issues of migration and identity. To make up for the carbon footprint, artist Sam Van Aken is planting trees close to detention facilities and other carceral sites.

Artist Nancy Baker Cahill has uploaded the skytyped messages into her augmented reality app, 4th Wall, which users can download for free to their phones. Once the app is installed, it is possible to view the skytyped messages virtually at each location. Not sure where those locations might be? A function in the app uses geolocation to direct users to the nearest site.


Moreover, Oxy Arts, the cultural space run by Occidental College in Eagle Rock, which is serving as a presenter of the project, will host a fall exhibition of participating artists and offer related programming, such as panels and performances.

“In Plain Sight,” therefore, will continue to exist in myriad forms after the last clouds of vapor have evaporated.

Said Cassils: “It will live on.”

In Plain Sight

  • Where: Locations all over the U.S., for a location near you, see the website

  • When: July 3-5



5:32 p.m. July 6, 2020: This story, previously published on July 3, has been updated with post-event details.