Shani Krebs: From heroin smuggler to jailbird to artist
In a Thai prison his ballpoint pen drawings gave him an escape from the violence, filth and appalling food
When former drug mule and addict Shani Krebs was sentenced to life in a notorious prison in Thailand, it was his ballpoint pen drawings that gave him an escape from the violence, filth and appalling food.
Now, 24 years later, the man who was initially sentenced to death and then had his sentence commuted to 100 years for trying to smuggle heroin out of Thailand is the owner of a top-notch Johannesburg gallery and sells his artworks around the world, with some fetching up to R100,000.
Krebs, author of Dragons and Butterflies, a tell-all memoir of his journey from drug dealer and addict to prisoner and, eventually, anti-drug campaigner, is now in talks with an SA movie producer to turn his life story into a movie.
Following the success of his first book, which sold 6,000 copies, Krebs is working on Shackles of Freedom, which focuses on his life after prison.
“Art saved my life and helped me maintain my sanity in an extremely stressful environment [prison]. Through art I rediscovered who I am and found purpose in life. I’ve found that it’s been harder adapting to society than it was to prison life,” said Krebs.
In 1994, a day before SA attained official democracy on April 27, Krebs was arrested for heroin trafficking and, following a trial, was sentenced to death. But his guilty plea saved his life and saw him given 100 years behind bars.
Krebs’s sentence was reduced to 40 years after Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej celebrated his 50th anniversary on the throne.
A succession of amnesties eventually resulted in Krebs serving only 18 years in prison, 16 of which were in the notorious Bang Kwang “Big Tiger” prison, where he started his art journey.
“I started making birthday cards for other prisoners’ children. I had no art supplies, so I took the bristles of a toothbrush, diluted coffee and painted greeting cards.”
His family then began sending him pens and paper for his drawings.
“Art was an escape from my reality. Rape was not uncommon, the food was inedible and the conditions filthy. I did hard time and survived.”
In 2012, Krebs returned to SA a changed man.
Since then he has been on a mission to discourage youngsters from dabbling in drugs, through various anti-drug campaigns at schools. Later this month, he will team up with the University of Johannesburg and the city to create awareness about the dangers of drugs.
Dragons and Butterflies has also been introduced to school libraries.
“One aspect of becoming clean was that I felt almost like a child. My head was full of dreams again and I found myself setting new goals. The first was I wanted to write a book, but I never imagined that one day my story may be translated into a film. It’s only since Dragons and Butterflies sold so well and saved and changed lives that I began to believe that it needed to be made into a movie.”
Apart from Krebs’s anti-drug work, he also teaches art and runs his own gallery, The Art Link Gallery on 6th, in Parkhurst, Johannesburg. His art has sold in Canada, Switzerland, the UK, US and Australia.
While his professional life is on track, 58-year-old Krebs admitted that his family life is still a work in progress.
NGO Khulisa Social Solutions, through its restorative justice programme, has had to intervene to assist Krebs in making peace with his family following his drug abuse and criminal activities.
“My family was extremely supportive while I was in prison. Since coming back there have been many challenges, whereby we had to go through a restorative justice process where perpetrators of crimes openly apologise to the victims. Although this helped to an extent, we are still experiencing difficulties.”
Khulisa mediator George Thom said a member of Krebs’s family “had been badly traumatised by the years of experience dealing with Shani and his drug addiction, problems with the police, his imprisonment in Thailand and subsequent release. But the restorative justice sessions has helped them heal.”