Mexico City-based visual artist and tattooer reveals her process and experience combining both practices

Christian Castañeda's work explores the intimate union between the natural and feminine.  Recurrent symbols like serpents, hands, and leaves collide with creatures with an aura of mysticism that, through subtle gestures, guide us towards dreamlike and mysterious realities. 

Castañeda is best known for her pure black and white line drawings informed by her craft as a tattooer. However, she works fluidly in various mediums and printing techniques. The color wasn't abundant until her last exhibition, New_on the block 3 at Machete Galería, presenting a series of full-color acrylic paintings. She recently began a series of works with different methods like cyanotypes and monotypes. Her latest drawings introduce natural pigments carefully applied to acid-free or Nepalese paper. 

We caught up with the artist at her studio to learn how she combines her creative endeavor as a visual artist and tattooer and the joys of being an artist.

We constantly observe nature imagery intertwined with what appears to be body fragments of women. How do you come up with this relation?

My pieces are not restricted solely towards nature since part of the constant questions in my work revolve around the mystery of the creative force of the feminine.

I present women intermingling with the cosmos and the universe in many pieces, strolling between alternate worlds and imaginary worlds. As if these two forces - women and nature - merge to generate new spaces, without any of them losing their independence. When the women in my drawings and paintings connect with the universe, they move away from a passive condition.

I like to paint delicate, soft, and subtle shapes because fragility is not synonymous with weakness. There is a lot of strength and resistance in what is fragile (I am thinking, for example, of a cobweb and its material capacity to absorb energy).

When I paint a woman between these possible worlds, I immerse myself in the image, feeling strangeness and tranquility simultaneously. Precisely that state of contemplation is what I like to generate in my pieces.

What role do symbols play in your work?

My fascination for symbolism has caused me to recur to it in my drawings and tattoos constantly. And I do it because, through the symbol, coincidences of meanings from different sources like sociology, anthropology, mythology, and esotericism reveal. A sign can go beyond synthesis; there are multiple possible metaphors behind that poetic image. It is and has been an extraordinary science.

The Hecate ritual, 2020. Watercolor on acid-free paper. 21h x 14.80w cm 

Can you tell us more about your process for your natural pigmentation drawings?

I have many sketchbooks; in this one, for example, I am drawing flowers. This one is where I put the excesses of watercolor, and I like how it looks, like abstract paintings.  I also work with gouache or sometimes with collage. I have probably thousands of experiments, and some can turn into larger drawings.                                                      

To produce the reds, for example, I use hibiscus flowers. I start by boiling the flowers and experiment with different saturations until I reach the color. When I am pleased, I  add a fixative.  If I want a darker tone, I use a toner that can be lemon. If you do not put a fixative, it can fade through time. I save all these experiments in sketchbooks.

How long have you been experimenting with this process?

For two years, perhaps since the pandemic started. I like how the paint changes on the paper. I like the artisanal process.

Have you always worked in this media?

After I graduated, I started working in photography. I enjoyed photographing escort models, but later I began doing product photography for so long that I was tired of it. After that I started tattooing almost nine years ago.

What led you to become a tattoo artist?

At the time, I had many skateboarding friends who were very involved in the tattoo culture.  For me, it was a different approach to drawing, but I think I also spent many hours alone, and I realized that I had a different approach to people. 

What do you think led you to that?

Flow state.  When I spend a lot of time doing an activity, it introduces me to a meditative state.  I enjoy working with tattoos so much. I enjoy the connection between the machine vibrating and the ink being injected.

When do you think you feel "the flow state" the most? 

I think when I have been tattooing for about 40 minutes and stop thinking about the image, just filling the shape. I feel merged with the image. That feeling lasts longer while tattooing than while painting.  In painting, I always return to the rational part,  thinking about the colors, etc. It's more frustrating for me.

Where do you think your works is going? 

I am experimenting and jumping from watercolor to acrylic in small formats, gestural models, or installations, experimenting with encaustic, but I have been thinking about something more three-dimensional.

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