Michael Wentz tells the story of his prison experience in hidden symbols and tiny scribbles in the murals he paints on corridor walls at Sterling Correctional Facility.

Images of a crumpled wad of paper and a calendar that he air-brushed onto one lonely prison scene each have their meaning.

Wentz doesn't need to work from photographs to paint scenes that appear real enough to walk into.

They are emblazoned on the mind of the 42-year-old, who has been locked up most of his adult life. Yet, he now recalls what happened within prison walls from a different perspective.

He has gone from stealing computer motors to building ink guns for tattooing to selling paintings in California art galleries for up to $2,000.

Wentz said his perspective changed in group therapy and after conversations with a warden who helped him look at his victimization as a child differently. He stopped blaming surrogates for his molestation as a child and began looking for positive outlets for his talent.

Wentz was a 19-year-old Army soldier in 1985 when he and his brother, Theodore, then 21, decided to beat up a man walking toward a gay bar in Colorado Springs. Wentz said he hated gays, grouping them all together in his mind with an uncle who molested him.

The brothers lured the man into an alley where Theodore hit him over the head from behind with a bat, Wentz said. They drove the man in his own car to a remote area of El Paso County where Theodore stabbed him five times, he said. The man survived the attack.

Theodore Wentz, 44, who is currently on parole, pleaded guilty to reduced charges. Wentz was convicted at trial in 1986 of kidnapping, attempted murder and other charges.

The long row of cells depicted in one of Wentz's murals, which is painted on a wall at the end of a hallway at Sterling prison's administration building, is how Wentz recalls his first day in a CaƱon City prison in 1986. It has gray walls, dark floors.

At the time, the 150-pound, 20-year-old inmate couldn't see other prisoners, but he could hear their taunts and threats. It was a terrifying introduction to what the next 50 years might be like.

Stealing motors from prison machines was a form of rebellion. It didn't matter that tattooing was prohibited.

Most of the prison correctional officers Wentz encountered over the years were punitive when they caught him tattooing, he said. But Warden Kevin Milyard explained why Wentz's behavior was hurting him the most and how his talent could provide a brighter destiny.

"He gave me a kick in the butt, to make me look at my life differently," Wentz said. "I kind of owe him my life for that."

Milyard went into the prison hobby shop one day and commissioned Wentz to do a painting. Other prison officers also asked him to paint portraits of family members or scenes. He began painting for galleries, which sold his paintings for between $800 and $2,000. He illustrated tattoo designs for each of the 50 states that have been used as patterns in tattoo parlors across the country.