of bulls and bears
The legendary figure of New York mafia, Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, has spent his incarceration in contemplative creation of stunning artwork, but this other side of the feared under boss and reviled "snitch" has not changed the minds of all his critics. In her telling interview with Sammy's daughter, Karen, Victoria Drake unravels a complex individual who, like many artists, strives to be understood in the context of his work separated from his deeds.
Taking the creative “Bull” by the horns by Victoria Drake
Salvatore (Sammy) “The Bull” Gravano, a former underboss for the infamous Gambino family, was known in his day as a formidable man to be feared and who was instrumental in helping to bring down John Gotti, the family's boss at the time, by agreeing to become an FBI informant. Even though he helped bring down others in the mob, he’s still spent much of the last twenty years behind bars for related and unrelated charges.
The topic of my conversation with Karen Gravano was not what one would expect. We spoke minimally of Mob Wives – the VH1 reality show that Karen is a part of, and we touched only briefly on her childhood, her father and his history. We stayed on the fringes.
We focused our discussion instead, on her current project – to display and to share her father’s artwork – yes, his artwork. She teamed up with Conception Gallery to showcase his work. Rachel Wilkins-Blum, the Art Director for Conception, hosted the show that was appropriately titled ‘Incarceration.’ The show took place in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, in October and was a big success. Sammy’s art showed incredible depth - displaying a drawing of Al Capone, a drawing of his daughter, of a tiger, of an Indian Chief and several other drawings that all exuded strength.
While behind bars, Sammy Gravano knew that he had choices – to become bitter and hateful – or to make the best of his time by doing something constructive. At some point, he met an Indian man who shared with him about the Indian culture – getting the mind away from materialistic things and focusing more on the earth - the land, the air and water – taking the mind to a more peaceful place.
This man gave Sammy paper and charcoal, and some magazines for inspiration and told him to learn to draw. Sammy took the man’s advice and taught himself how to draw - quite well - and soon he was creating pieces that he would share with his family. As Karen pointed out, “Men in prison feel like they can’t take care of their families anymore, that they can’t help or even give gifts.” So her father started sending these drawings to her, to her daughter and to her nephew, at Christmas and for birthdays - as a way to give back.
As she received the drawings, she kept them safe. They were hers. She never thought of doing anything with them – she hadn’t even framed them. Also, she was busy filming Mob Wives, moving frequently, while at the same time doing her best to care for her daughter and her nephew.
Earlier this year, as she was going through her boxes, she came across the drawings again. She decided that she wanted to do something with them – create some sort of message – a positive message – to share with the public and to utilize some of the proceeds toward programs that could help young people in trouble and possibly even help the inmates coming out of prison – by helping to create a better transition program for these people.
Karen has had more than her fair share of scrutiny and criticism over the years. As the daughter of a mob underboss who became an FBI informant, as well as being a very outspoken individual in her own right and being part of a reality show that highlights sensationalism as the norm – she has, through it all, stood by her family. She has never condoned her father’s choice to be a part of the mob world, but she stands by him – she is a very strong, family-oriented woman, who has admitted that she has made her own bad choices over the years – but she owns up to all of them – as does her father.
The one constant for Karen and her family throughout the years has been that they have upheld their family unit - no matter what. Karen told me, “When you have a strong family unit, you can make it through anything. We fight for one another, and it makes us stronger, even to this day – my father would still give his life for me.”
Karen realizes that she sold herself short many times over the years because of the choices she made when she was young. After her father’s arrest, those that they had known all their lives shunned her family. She was 19 years old at the time, and wanted desperately to find a way back in – to be accepted again. She made choices that she thought would bring her acceptance again, but ultimately they just caused her grief and landed her on the wrong side of the law.
She decided that she wanted to use Mob Wives as a platform to help get her message across. She never intended to go on the show to talk about the ‘truth’ of what happened when she was growing up, rather she wanted to share her story from her own perspective - what it was like growing up in the crazy and dangerous environment that she was born into and using her platform to send positive messages going forward.
Her message is simple – she wants to reach children, and young adults, who may be going down the wrong path – for whatever reason. She wants to help them understand that they should never sell themselves short by putting themselves into situations that will get them into trouble. People, especially young people it seems these days, want to belong - which is what ultimately gets them into trouble. She believes that’s why her father initially got involved in the mob – because he wanted to belong. It’s not the right thing to do, but that’s how it seems to happen.
Karen believes in turning her negatives into positives and if people don’t see it that way then, “Too bad for them.”
She’s not naïve and she acknowledged this easily when she said, “There are always consequences for our actions and we have to take ownership of them in order to move past them.”
She looks at mistakes as just notches in our belts of life. Twenty years ago when her father cooperated, everyone talked behind her back, and she felt almost ashamed of her dad – at least at the time – but at the art show in Hell’s Kitchen recently, she felt pride again.
She discovered that many of her old friends came to the show to support them or maybe just to see for themselves how far they’d come - and her observation was, “Here was my father’s artwork all over the walls with his signature on them and I realized that my family and I have always fought for what we believe in – we always will and we will continue to hold our heads high. In life, and in general, you can have something bad happen and as long as you own it and it’s something you can learn from, then you can stand tall.” Those that came to the show that day confirmed in her mind that standing tall does matter. That’s one of the reasons that she feels so connected to her father’s artwork.
In her book, a New York best seller – Mob Daughter: The Mafia, Sammy 'the Bull' Gravano and Me – she goes into detail about choices, the good, the bad and the ugly, and how to come out the other side and see the sunshine again. Her story is truthful, raw and honest. It’s a powerful read.
Karen also talked about how many of those coming out of prison seem to have very little opportunity to redeem themselves in the eyes of society. They are placed, many times, in halfway houses or low income housing, are offered very low paying jobs, and many times feel that they have no alternative but to go back into the criminal world. It’s a sad situation that she’s hoping to help change.
She wants to figure out a way to fix these problems. But how? She said, “How do we prevent these people from going back into the life of crime, once they are released from incarceration? There seems to be no successful program to help inmates rehabilitate, and no solid transition program. There are some programs in the ‘system’ that are intended to help these people, such as training dogs for handicapped people, encouraging art, and a few other programs, but how much do they really help in the long run?”
Sammy Gravano is set for release in 2017.
For more information about buying and obtaining your own limited edition copies of Sammy “The Bull’s” artwork, contact email@example.com / www.conceptiongallery.com