The week of November 2, 2014

The greatest story Reddit ever told

By Kevin Morris

At around 8:30am on the morning Dante Orpilla planned to pay back the woman who had saved his life, he made a phone call.

Scenarios about the way things were about to play out had been running through his head all morning, but he kept the conversation short. “If we want to do this,” he said to the man on the other end. “We can do it at like 2 or 3.” He wanted to get this over with. I can finally pay the debt, he remembers thinking.

His friends called him Lucky, or Youngluck. The son of a Filipino father and mixed mother (“we’ve got no idea what her lineage is,” he says), Orpilla grew up on the violent Oakland streets of the ’80s and ’90s. When he was 17, a bullet from a nearby gunfight grazed the back of his head. When he was 21, he got into a verbal tussle with a guy while on a late-night run to a convenience store. The next day, the guy unloaded a gun at Orpilla, hitting him once in the arm.

All along, he was grinding his way up the ladder of the underground L.A. music scene, working as a producer and vocalist for a hardcore rap-rock band called the Bottom Dwellerz. Orpilla felt like it was on the cusp of something great; the drummer had played with Snoop Dogg, the bassist with Mariah Carey, and the group had “deals on the table from a couple pretty big labels,” he says.

His nickname seemed less appropriate the older he got. In 2006, after a messy breakup, his girlfriend disappeared with his 3-year-old son, Orion. As Orpilla plastered neighborhoods with missing posters and filed reports with the police, he took the edge off with drugs. The occasional hit of coke to power late-night work sessions transformed into a full-blown meth addiction. He became paranoid. (Once, convinced the National Security Agency had wired his house, he ripped apart a $3,000 leather sofa to find a bug that didn’t exist.)

That’s when a good friend—whom Orpilla still won’t name—locked him in a room for a month and helped him kick the habit, to get him off of “shit you’re not supposed to get off of.”

Now that friend was in serious trouble. Her boyfriend, a dope dealer, had just found some of his product was missing. The guy threatened her life if the situation didn’t get fixed, fast. Orpilla had promised to help her.

By 11am he was on the road, taking his white Dodge Ram along Interstate 605, from his home in Woodland Hills to Torrance, Calif., about 20 miles south of Los Angeles. The guy he was supposed to meet, the one he’d called that morning, was another good friend. But all day he’d been unusually slow, taking his time to respond to text messages, not answering his phone. He was going to be late, he kept telling Orpilla.

“I take full responsibility for the choices I have made. I have not only damaged my life, but the lives of those that love me and look up to me.”

So at the end of the hour-and-a-half drive, Orpilla took a couple pit stops. He pulled off near the meeting space to get lunch. He ordered a bowl of chicken soup, finished it, waited for the phone call. When it didn’t come, he moved on to a gas station. Waiting in line, Orpilla saw a man approach through the big glass windows. Using his hands as shade from the glaring sun, the guy peered inside, like he was looking for someone. He was tall, maybe 6 feet, and sported a goatee and a polo shirt tucked into blue jeans. But it was the black strap around his thigh that really stuck out. He looked like a cowboy, Orpilla thought.

He wasn’t.

Meanwhile, the knot in Orpilla’s stomach just kept getting tighter. Back in his truck, his phone lit up with a text message.

Just taking the grease off so u can cut into them,” his friend texted.

The meeting happened 20 minutes later.

The guy was waiting for him in a big empty parking lot, just north of a Burger King. “You ready?” his friend asked after jumping out of his car and walking to greet Orpilla. “Yep,” Orpilla replied, pulling out a brown paper bag from the back seat. The guy counted the wads of cash inside one-by-one, adding them up—$10,000 $20,000, $30,000. At $50,000, he fanned the rest and, apparently satisfied, pulled out his cellphone.

Two men pulled into the lot in small black car. Orpilla wasn’t experienced doing this kind of thing, but everything seemed to be going smoothly enough. They handed him a single blue bag, heavy with blocky, rectangular packages. Everything was good, done. Orpilla started the engine, drove northbound toward the exit—and a convoy of black SUVs rolled in and surrounded him. Men with guns rushed toward him, commanding him to get out of his vehicle, to put his hands on his head. A K-9 snarled. Helicopter blades thumped overhead.

Orpilla had just tried to buy 7 kilos of cocaine from two undercover ICE agents for $115,000 in cash.

On the ride to the federal detention center, Orpilla remembers feeling detached, like his mind had been separated from his body and he was watching everything unfold from far away. But there was also a sense of relief. The knot was gone. An ordeal that had begun years ago was finally over, albeit in the worst possible way.

The agent in the front seat summed up his future:

“You’re fucked.”

Halfway home

The first communication I ever received from Dante Orpilla landed in my mailbox one morning in the summer of 2011. The handwritten letter, filling up six pages of legal-sized paper, arrived in an envelope stamped with a return address to the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Ore.

It began with an apology.

“I had actually written a much more detailed recollection of the events that led to my incarceration,” Orpilla wrote in his skinny, looping script. “But was advised by the resident legal expert here that it might not be such a good idea to broadcast that level of detail, at least not under my current living arrangement.”

Truth was, I wasn’t as interested in how he wound up in prison as I was in what happened after his arrest. Orpilla had been caught with enough coke to kill a large herd of African elephants. The minimum sentence recommended for comparable drug-trafficking cases was 10 years, but in just a few months, Orpilla was set to be released to a halfway house. That would make his total stay in the federal prison system about two and a half years.

As I was about to read in the letter, Orpilla’s life had been saved a second time, between the ride to the detention center and his sentencing. And not by a good friend, not even close. Bored and on home release one day in 2009, Dante Orpilla loaded up a website called Reddit.

The Internet’s megacity

For Internet neophytes, Reddit must now seem like a foundational pillar of Web culture. A sprawling collection of forums, called subreddits, the site is a Darwinian battlefield of virality, pumping out memes and images macros from the Web’s abyssal depths and propagating them across the world. Content on Reddit lives or dies according to the whims of its users, who push it to the top with upvotes or bury it to viral purgatory with downvotes. More than 115 million people visit the site every month.

But nowadays, the word “Reddit” itself almost a loaded term among the Internet culture cognoscenti. The site’s founders, University of Virginia students Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, instilled an institutional devotion to ideals of free speech, turning Reddit into an online petri dish for experiments in stretching the First Amendment to its breaking point. The site’s doors were open to everyone, from programming obsessives and gaming geeks to marijuana enthusiasts—and others, including noxious trolls and Internet stalkers, or even purveyors of scantily clad pics of teenagers. It’s those latter forums that have cemented themselves in the consciousness of the Web and earned Reddit its oddly mixed reputation as both a haven of do-gooders and a den of iniquity—even if the latter has come to dominate mainstream stories about the site in recent years.

It’s easy to paint Reddit with both those broad brushes because it’s one of the few large online platforms whose users present something of a shared culture and common identity. The voting system only amplifies this, giving an appearance of community approval or disapproval to opinions and ideas. But Reddit has a population of millions, and there are in turn a million stories on the site’s forums that skirt the site’s broader narrative trends or have nothing to do with them at all.

When Orpilla loaded it up from his home in 2009, Reddit was only on the cusp of its future ubiquity. And he was about to write what should be (and was once) its greatest story—one that has faded into obscurity as the site has exploded in size, becoming little more a memory of a few strings of text that once ran across the screens of thousands of strangers.

Reddit was the new megacity, absorbing and finding space for every disparate community on the Internet, connecting everything through the central hub of its front page.

Around then, at four years old, Reddit was something of a middle-aged man in the crash-and-burn cycle of tech startups. It was staffed by only a skeleton crew of about five devoted, if overworked, developers, who relied on a small army of volunteer moderators to keep the thousands of forums running.

The site’s barebones design hearkened back to the almost prehistoric days of the Internet, when people were clacking away on mechanical keyboards and loading up Usenet threads on text-based UNIX systems. Indeed, Reddit bore more resemblance to Usenet—the online network of forums born in the early ’80s that spawned a lot of early Internet culture, like the emoticon—more than more modern services like Myspace or Facebook. Web communities of the late ’90s and early aughts were a collection of largely independent forums devoted to highly specific subject areas—little hamlets thinly connected by search engines and word of mouth.

Reddit was the new megacity, absorbing and finding space for every disparate community on the Internet, connecting everything through the central hub of its front page.

Orpilla’s memory of his earliest time on the site isn’t perfect, but he was pulled into Reddit’s orbit like a lot of other people. It was in the build up to the 2010 elections, and he’d gotten into a heated discussion on Facebook about partisan politics—something relating to Glenn Beck. He wanted to back up his side of the debate with facts, and a Google search brought him to a thread on Reddit, where he once more plunged headfirst into the arguments. Five years later, he doesn’t remember what he was arguing about—only that some redditor completely demolished his argument. And that sold him.

On July 29, 2009, around 6pm, he created an account. He named himself Youngluck.

‘I will draw you a spiffy picture of almost anything’

The trial, meanwhile, wasn’t looking good. Orpilla had been assigned district Judge George Schiavelli, a George H.W. Bush appointee who’d gained a reputation as a hard-assed sentencer, a big fan of harsh, federally recommended minimum sentences.

“Chatter back at Twin Towers was,” Orpilla remembered, referring to the slang name for the federal detention center in downtown L.A., where he stayed for months after his arrest, “anybody who gets this judge, we give ’em noodles, beans, extra portions of food. Because they’re fucked.”

“Getting fucked” was becoming a theme for Orpilla.

To keep his mind off that unpleasant prospect, he waded deeper into Reddit. Most of the site’s forums function like glorified news tickers, aggregating links around a certain topic. But the possibilities for topics were pretty much infinite. And their formation was often organic, with forums splitting off from one another like roots from a tree. When redditors noticed that discussion threads would easily get derailed by a single person with an interesting story, they shepherded those threads into a dedicated forum. They called it r/IAmA, which in a matter of years would become the go-to Internet watering hole on promotional tours for everyone from A-list celebrities and media personalities to President Obama.

There were others who figured out how to turn Reddit’s powerful crowdsourcing mechanics into a tool for good. In 2009, Web programmer Dan McComas threw out an idea for a crowdsourced gift exchange powered by Reddit. And in no time, it took off, pulling in 17,000 participants just one year later, all of which McComas organized in his free time with his wife. It would shortly become the most successful Reddit offshoot of all time, the crowdsourced gift hub they named RedditGifts.

“The response it received from Reddit became like my lifeline.” — Dante Orpilla

Then there was the r/favors subreddit, where someone would toss out a request, from the inane to the serious, and another redditor would help out: Can someone make a quick translation for me? Can someone make me a Daft Punk Christmas mix?

Orpilla clicked through those forums and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “I lost my son, got betrayed by one friend doing a favor for another friend, and I stumble on this obscure site where people are helping other people just help to help them,” he recalls. “Doing it anonymously. At that time, I needed to see that.”

Reddit’s Secret Santa and the r/favors subreddit were filling an emotional hole, the same one he’d started to fill with coke and meth years ago, and that had been made even deeper by his isolating house arrest.

Orpilla had always been good at drawing. He was the type of kid who’d spend all class filling up his notebook with sketches that would make other kids drool with envy. That would be his entry point.

On Jan. 13, 2010, he stopped lurking and started posting. “Offer,” his first post in the forum read. “I will draw you a spiffy picture of almost anything.”

The requests flew in.


15 minutes later:


“a platypus, tap dancing on a wheel of cheddar, wearing a snorkel mask, tutu, clown shoes, with a spatula in one hand and an umbrella in the other, blocking the cherry kool-aid rain.”



“A t-rex with sunglasses playing the piano in the foreground, a burning city in the background.”


Not long after, Orpilla ran another drawing thread in r/favors. Encouraged by the community’s response, he tried his luck with something much bigger—a favor, for him. Would a group of strangers help a soon-to-be-convicted felon, a drug trafficker, with a project—for free? He threw out the idea: Someone transform my design for a blog into a reality. When I’m in prison, I’ll make art and mail it to someone to the outside who can scan it and upload it, so my family has a way to follow what’s happening to me.

The response was immediate, thanks in part for the reputation Orpilla had built for his art. As he worked with two redditors to build his site, he also worked on a speech to give the judge. He wanted the court to know how he’d changed his life, to emphasize that he’d done the cocaine run to help a friend and that was it, to show that he was already a changed man trying to do more good in the world. But something still wasn’t quite right, no matter how much he worked on it. He turned to Reddit once more to ask for feedback, again on r/favors.

The man who founded r/favors wasn’t just your average redditor. A scriptwriter and audio engineer in real life, kleinbl00 was one of the closest things Reddit had to a celebrity. He’d drop long, immaculately constructed comments at a speed that less-gifted Internet pontificators drop 140-character tweets. And his range of knowledge was vast. He’d show up in any one of dozens of forums and leave thoughtful comments with the unmistakable sheen of expertise on everything from audio engineering to communism and the short American vacation to homeopathy and neuropathy. Redditors would shower his best comments with hundreds of upvotes and crosspost them to the r/bestof subreddit, a museum for the best of the best of Reddit comments. But kleinbl00 was also a tough-as-nails moderator when he needed to be, knocking heads of unassuming redditors who broke the rules.

“When he asked for help proofreading, I knew I was pretty good at it,” kleinbl00 said, matter-of-fact. “So I helped.” The scriptwriter reworded some things, cut the length, made the whole speech cleaner, punchier, better—but the writing, the heart, was all still Orpilla’s. It took kleinbl00 30 minutes.

On July 29, around 6pm, he created an account. He named himself Youngluck.

A few days before the sentencing, Orpilla received a piece of good news: Schiavelli, the hard-nosed judge famous for handing out maximum sentences, had fallen and hurt his hip. He’d be out. (He’d later sue the shopping center where he fell for $21 million and lose.) His replacement was a far more liberal judge named Robert Whaley. Still, Orpilla hardly slept in the week leading up to sentencing. The next 10 years of his life were on the line, and all he had on his side was a tiny speech that a complete stranger had helped him edit.

Orpilla’s entire family showed up in the courtroom. Everyone watched as he pulled that little speech out of his pocket and read it to the judge.

“Your Honor,” it began. “I take full responsibility for the choices I have made. I have not only damaged my life, but the lives of those that love me and look up to me. However lenient or severe you make my sentence, my family and I will be serving it for the rest of my life.” Orpilla laid out the changes he’d made to get his life back on track, how he feared his incarceration wouldn’t just punish him, but his young son.

“I understand and respect that you have a job to do. I only pray that you not only consider the crime, you consider the criminal. I did not do what I did to harm anyone. I did not even do it for profit. I did it to help a friend in danger. My heart told me to do what my gut told me not to and while I would do anything to rethink that choice, I know that I and my family will live with it forever.”

Whaley delivered his verdict: 36 months with time served, leaving Orpilla with only a 28-month stay in federal prison, with five years of home confinement when he was out.

As soon as he could, he shared the news on Reddit.

Kool-Aid and coffee

From its entrance, the orange-roofed buildings of the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan are barely visible above the rolling wheat fields and copses of evergreens that dot this part of Oregon. The land in this secluded town is flat as a table, running between the state’s coastal range rising to the west and the Cascades to the east. But the prison sits at the end of a winding road lined with tall firs and reveals itself only as you leave the gate and pull around the bend.

Orpilla arrived on Sept. 6, 2010, after a 1,000-mile trip that began the day before, which he took with his his grandmother, his “lola.” He remembers how the prison never really revealed itself until you were inside. “Even when you pull into intake,” he says, “there’s just one door.”

There’s wasn’t much more once you made it through the door. Orpilla’s new home was in the solitary wing; the prison had become so overloaded with prisoners that it simply didn’t have room for anyone else. His cell, in other words, was intended for one convicted felon. But he was sharing it with two others—one of whom couldn’t speak English. Whenever he sat on the toilet, Orpilla could have reached out and kicked his roommates.

He spent the first couple days in bed, barely moving. His skin went pale. He fell into a deep depression. There was one small thing keeping his sanity: He’d borrowed a pencil (“no bigger than my thumb; the kind you use to keep score when playing miniature golf”) from his Spanish-speaking roommate, which he used to make sketches on the back of envelopes.


Time passed slowly. Then, a full two months after arriving, he was finally transferred to the main prison.

“By then the actual prison was a breath of fresh air,” Orpilla said. But it wasn’t just the extra space. There were more opportunities for an enterprising artist—if you were willing to hustle. He upgraded his pencil, this time getting one with an eraser. Not longer after, he drew a sketch for another prisoner and in return got a ballpoint pen.

There was an urgency in Orpilla’s gut; the pictures weren’t just to pass the time—they were exorcising his demons, clearing his conscience. (“I think people get this impression of him that he’s like a wild, happy guy, crazy guy,” McComas would later tell me. “But I think his art might actually come from a place of pain, which is kind of sad. But I know having people enjoy his art makes him happy.”)

Reddit’s Secret Santa and the r/favors subreddit were filling an emotional hole, the same one he’d started to fill with coke and meth years ago.

One day, he spilled some coffee on a piece of paper and realized the brownish hue could be manipulated into complicated forms rich in color. His morning beverage soon became a favorite watercolor. So did the Kool-Aid-like packs he’d buy from the prison’s only vendor, a company called Keefee. He’d throw in soy sauce too, for darker shades.

His drawings became richer, more complicated, sometimes darker. One of his favorite pieces, “Faces,” is a collage of sketched out visages of all the men who’d walked into the Sheridan yard after him, started at the very beginning of his time and finished at the very end.


Another, called “Just a Taste,” looks over the shoulder of a prisoner who stares in darkness, shadows of cell bars laying stripes across his back. In his journal entry for the piece, Orpilla lays out all the many kinds of depression inmates suffer. “The optimistic few,” he writes, “make attempts to counter its bitter taste with laughter, visions of the future and a belief that just as misery loves company, so does joy. Yet every once in a while we taste it, bitter on our tongues.”


The paintings weren’t just for him. With the help of two redditors, he had launched that website. He’d mail his art out to kleinbl00, who’d scan it and post it to the blog. The combination online art gallery and daily journal provided a window into Orpilla’s life behind bars. Kleinbl00 would share the links to r/youngluck, which he’d created as a place for the community to follow Orpilla’s progress, and which became a kind of online support group. He also encouraged these strangers to send care packages in the mail. So while Orpilla was mailing out artwork, his supporters on Reddit were sending in books and mountains of letters. Every week he’d get maybe five letters from his followers on Reddit, though at the holidays that would jump to 15 or 20. That first Christmas the volume of letters and books was particularly high, after Dan McComas and the RedditGifts squad put out a rallying cry on the r/secretsanta subreddit.

There were people writing letters just to ask how he was doing. Others printed off the Reddit front page, or mailed him drunken scribbles. Orpilla chokes up when he talks about it today.

“The response it received from Reddit became like my lifeline,” he said. “I know that you’re not totally forgotten. Your family has to go about their day to day life. They let you know that you love them. As soon as the phone hangs up, they’re starting to live their life. That has its limits as far as that connection. Reddit was constant. a constant supply of motivation and positivity. I can’t honestly say that I would be the man I was when I walked out if it weren’t for that support.”

Coffee became a watercolor. So did the Kool-Aid-like packs he’d buy from the prison’s only vendor, a company called Keefee.

Why did they do it? The answers are as varied as the people behind the Reddit accounts, and of those I asked, few could pinpoint a specific reason. Some did it because they’d lived through similar experiences, others just to be kind to a stranger, or others because they became fans of Orpilla’s artwork. And curiously, almost every redditor I spoke to asked to stay anonymous, from kleinbl00 to one of the redditors who made his website. That includes prettyjellybean, a middle-aged woman who shares moderation duties with kleinbl00 in r/youngluck. When she first started helping out—she volunteered to keep track of all the books sent Orpilla’s way, so he didn’t get duplicates—she was still using a dial-up modem. In 2011, when Orpilla was still in prison, I asked what her involvement with Orpilla meant to her.

“I’m not sure how to answer that,” she wrote back. “I could do a whole song and dance about how wonderful Youngluck is, but it’s just possible that I could be wrong. Here is what I do know for sure: People end up walking down different roads than they ever had planned for themselves.”

Sometimes, the generosity went the other way. On Christmas Day 2011, a college kid named Jabir from Queens, N.Y., complained on Reddit that his Secret Santa hadn’t come through. “I think I got shafted and I didn’t get rematched,” he wrote, referring to the system RedditGifts to find new matches for people whose Secret Santa didn’t come through.

Five days later, he received a text from his mother. “YOU GOT A LETTER FROM PRISON. ARE YOU IN TROUBLE?” Inside was a fantastical drawing, painted from a mix of prison-bought Folgers and Keefee coffee, from a Secret Santa named Youngluck.


A second chance

My conversations with Orpilla trailed off in 2012. We had moved from the handwritten letter to the fairly regular correspondence on the Department of Justice’s clunky email system, CorrLinks, which would sometimes go down for weeks at a time. But in around October that year he had a meeting with his case supervisor to determine if he was eligible for early release. This time there was no prepared speech, no crowdsourced help. Just Orpilla in front of his supervisor, answering generic questions. It lasted an hour.

In January, he was out.

Oddly enough, it became harder to reach him out of prison than in. His halfway house forbade the use of cellphones and didn’t have computers for its residents, meaning he was only able to go online for short periods of time at a job resources center. And he had relationships to jump-start, family members to meet, friends like kleinbl00 to thank in person. Then there was his son. Orion was 8 years old now, and he’d spent the last two and a half without his dad. Per the stipulations of his federal probation, though, Orpilla would have to wait two months to see him. In the meantime, he needed to find work—another stipulation of probation.

Lucky for him, Dan McComas at RedditGifts had been following his story all along. And as it turned out, he needed some help. It wasn’t long before Orpilla got an email. “So you’re a digital artist?” McComas wrote.

Soon Orpilla was doing contract art work for RedditGifts on a regular basis. “I don’t think he owned a computer,” McComas says. “Every time I emailed work, he’d drive an hour and a half to his friend’s place, and worked all night to finish.”

There were big changes happening at RedditGifts, too. That summer, the mom-and-pop volunteer organization became Reddit’s first-ever acquisition, meaning that McComas and his wife, Jessica Moreno, could now devote themselves to the work full-time—and bring on paid staff. Orpilla was putting in solid hours, right when RedditGifts was hitting its own stride.

One day in the summer of 2013, McComas was sitting in a Salt Lake City bar, a little buzzed and feeling great. He’d just asked his higher-ups at Reddit if he could bring on a full-time designer, and they’d said yes.

He sent Orpilla a text message: “Do you want a job?”

Anyone could have guessed the answer to that question. And though McComas was pretty certain he wanted Orpilla full time, he’d still never even spoken to the guy on the phone. So before giving him an official offer, he needed to meet him in person. He wanted to make sure Orpilla was a good fit.

“The response it received from Reddit became like my lifeline.” — Dante Orpilla

On Aug. 4, Orpilla flew into Salt Lake City on a ticket bought by RedditGifts. McComas picked him up at the airport. Orpilla’s travel was restricted as a condition of his parole; he could only go out of state with special permission. So he was kind of like a wide-eyed kid on his first vacation there in the car with McComas.

“Everything is still new to me,” he remembers thinking. “I finally get to meet this guy who I’ve been inspired by for a long time. Finally get to meet one of my heroes.”

McComas drove straight to lunch, a place called the Red Iguana, which he calls “the one good Mexican restaurant” in Salt Lake City. It sits across from a line of train tracks amid a cluster of tire stores and mechanic shops, with dusty outliers of the Rocky Mountains rising as backdrop. Before the meeting, McComas told his staffers to give him a subtle “thumbs up”—one that Orpilla wouldn’t be able to notice—if they thought he should be brought on.

Orpilla doesn’t remember seeing anything of the sort. He does remember that the restaurant had six different flavors of mole. He remembers how the staff started grilling him from the moment he walked in. He remembers talking passionately about RedditGifts and his work.

One by one, and via any method they could—text message, a subtle nod—the RedditGifts staffers gave their verdict.

Thumbs up.

Project Stane

Dante Orpilla’s not a big guy, but he carries himself with the type of outward toughness you’d expect of someone who grew up in rough neighborhoods, who’d been shot twice, who’d kicked meth and spent two and a half years in federal prison. McComas spoke about Orpilla’s “pain” informing his art, and you can see what he means. When he’s not talking, maybe when he doesn’t think you’re looking, Orpilla’s eyes can turn dark and he can look off into the distance, like those bad memories are constantly there, under the surface, and he’s trying to keep them away. (When we first spoke, it was hard for him to remember anything about what happened on the day he was arrested; he’d tried for more than three years to forget it all.)

But then he starts talking, or flashes a smile, and it’s like a mask gets ripped off. He’s disarmingly sweet and open, the kind of guy who can make friends with anyone, who laughs often and easily. Prisons are often divided sharply along race, and at Sheridan there was a tradition where members of your race would prepare a single meal for you the day before you get out.

On Orpilla’s last day, he ate four.

Nowadays, he’s still working for RedditGifts out of Los Angeles, where he’s stayed so he can keep fighting for custody of his son—a battle not made any easier by his stay behind bars. He’s remained friends with kleinbl00, who was one of only three people to visit him in prison. He’s working on his art.

When we spoke via video chat in March, he was sitting in a motel room somewhere in Nashville, and that smile just kept flashing across his face. We’d hit on something that makes him very proud.

About three months after he was first released, Orpilla held an art demonstration for at-risk kids in Los Angeles. He had this idea that maybe other people could use the coping mechanism he’d depended on in prison. Maybe kids could learn to make art from coffee stains, to channel anger and pain into color. So using that first session as a model, he launched something he calls Project Stane. Now, whenever he can—he always needs special permission, as a condition of probation—he travels the country, going to group homes, youth centers, juvenile detention centers, working with kids that aren’t much different than he was. 

“I teach them how to make something beautiful out of a mess,” he later told me. “Basically my whole experience.”

Main illustration by J. Longo | All other illustrations by Dante Orpilla