On alchemy, magic and TLC: A few pretty scrapes and witchy words with the high priestess of Mexico City’s tattoo scene
I’ve officially been waiting for about six months for my tattoo appointment with Christian Castañeda, but I’ve been Instagram-stalking her for two years. As I arrive at her petite studio in Mexico City’s Colonia Escandón, I still have no idea what the mark she gives me will look like. She doesn’t share sketches over the Internet for fear of plagiarism, so all I know is what I told her I wanted via email so many months ago: a snake, some fire, a hand, and some other stuff.
I’m greeted by one of her comrades, and sit in the waiting room, surrounded by odds and ends, books on alchemy, religion and even a skull or three. When Castañeda walks through the door, she greets me with the customary Mexico City kiss on the cheek and I’m immediately overwhelmed by a sense of warmth coming from her tiny frame and saucer eyes.
I expect the first step of this process to involve me giving an OK to the design she’s prepared for permanent placement on my back, but she informs me that she hasn’t drawn it yet because she wanted to meet me first. And not only meet me first, but read my fortune as well. It’ll serve as a way to understand what I need from the tattoo. You see, Castañeda’s designs aren’t merely body decorations, or even symbols of one’s triumphs, loves, heartbreaks, etc. in life. They are amulets: talismans for protection and aimed toward attracting a brighter future. Frankly, I’m here because I could use all the help I can get in that department.
She sits in front of me with a tarot deck. I shuffle it while she looks on at me with a gaze that penetrates my core. I hand the jumble of cards back to her and she carefully removes one from the middle: The Magician. The scope of the card is basically that I have everything I need to survive and thrive, I just need the confidence and focus to make it happen in the best way possible. With this information, she retreats to her drawing room, emerging in about 45 minutes with three drawings combining the elements I requested in the email I sent to set up my appointment.
The first two are unique designs: small, simple, discreet featuring a snake and a hand. Either of these would suit me well, and are roughly the size I’d considered getting. Then she shows me the third one, a completely balls-to-the-wall piece which would cover most of my shoulder blade and features not only the hand and the snake, but also fire for creativity, stars for hope, lavender for love and a moth for duality. Being the kind of impetuous rambler who tends toward going big or going home, I opted for the third design. Castañeda says she sort of lost herself while drawing it, and I’m quite certain that it may be the coolest tattoo design I’ve ever seen. We finagle the placement for about 20 minutes, and the process begins.
Castañeda tells me she has just acquired new tattooing materials, including needles that are among the finest points that exist. I lay on my stomach as she pierces my skin with the slightest, most feathery touch. Basically, I’m being tattooed by a pixie, and it feels great. We talk about astrology, we talk about the divisive behemoth that is Mexico City, and we talk about magic:
How did you get into this world of tattooing?
I studied visual arts here in Mexico City, in a school called La Esmeralda, where Frida Kahlo taught; it has a long history. After I graduated, I basically started tattooing so that I could continue drawing every day. For me, tattooing was the best excuse to keep drawing after art school. If I pass a day without drawing, I feel really awful.
Tattooing is also great because it helps me take a break from the fine art world, because when I’m not tattooing, I work on my own visual arts projects. The tattoos are more figurative things, whereas when I work with my personal projects, they are more conceptual and abstract.
Did you ever have a mentor at all? Did anyone teach you how to tattoo?
I had a couple of friends who are tattoo artists, but I never had a mentor. I can probably say that I’m self-taught; I took a super small workshop but I didn’t learn anything at all. The thing I did learn from that workshop was that I had a dermatologist as a teacher, so that was a big step in understanding how to work with skin. I quickly learned that I needed to very disciplined. What happened is basically I started by tattooing an orange one day, and the next day I was tattooing some punk friends.
I imagine punk friends would be the best canvas to practice on. Can you describe what you tattoo, what kinds of themes you do, and how that differs maybe from your work in the fine arts world?
Since I was a kid, I was very interested in the occult and alchemy, but it wasn’t until I got to college when I had a boyfriend who called himself a Satanist … that’s how I was introduced to this world. I always thought of myself as a little witch, but I never practiced anything like that, until I got to college and I was living with this boyfriend; I started studying alchemy and symbols, and that’s when I started meeting many people that were into this world. For example, I had some neighbors who were into Santería; one of my best friends was kind of a freemason, and he was the one who taught me how to read tarot. I was always surrounded by people who were very into these kinds of themes.
When I finished college, that’s when I started tattooing, but at the same time in my personal work, I was really into the theme of death and shadows. The themes of nostalgia and emptiness. But in my personal work, which is more abstract, more diluted, there exists my personal journeys because there are occasions in which I don’t understand my reality. There are times when I detach from the world, so I end up with another type of work. I live between realities: the real world and the world that I imagine. What scares me is that suddenly I don’t know where I am. This is something that I have to work with in therapy. But, this is where I land with my personal work, and why it is so abstract. However, when I create a tattoo, it has more to do with symbolism. From there I began to do more with amulets.
When you started to work with amulets, was that with yourself in mind, or mostly for other people?
It goes both ways. Every time I make a tattoo, I think of it as a ritual. And it depends a lot on what I’m going to tattoo. Sometimes people want their tattoo to mean something really special. And there are others who don’t really care what it means. They’re like, “fuck it, tattoo me a sandwich.” I like to make those kinds of tattoos. I have a lot of fun doing them. But when people tell me their story, I take it as I’m going to mark them, and they are going to remember me the rest of their lives. So it has to be something special. That’s why I don’t repeat any tattoo. All designs are unique. If someone asks for something similar, yes, it may be similar, but it will never be the same.
The process is something very personal –- for my clients and for me. And when people ask me for plants, what I like to do is research the properties of the plants. Because the property of the plant, even though it is a just an image, is a thing that can program people. It’s like a positive neuro-linguistic connection. If I tattoo this on someone, it will be more clear that they have to work on something emotional.
For example, there are many girls who ask for tattoos of plants, and who want to work with the theme of love. But not just themes of love in terms of partnership, but moreso in terms of self-love. For these cases, I like to tattoo lavender. So from that point on, when those girls see the image of lavender, this is the memory that comes up. It doesn’t matter if there are other girls with lavender in their tattoos. For this reason, I believe in the power of the image, and that is how the amulets become illuminated. It’s something that you’re going to carry for the rest of your life. It’s like a mole, but a personalized mole. And that is magic.
So marking your body permanently is showing an intention, and as such you believe that tattoos can attract certain elements into our lives?
I am completely certain that during the ritual of tattooing, there is an exchange of energy. And I can sense very well if someone is nervous or wounded, and in such cases I, too, begin to feel very tired while I’m tattooing them. I am working with blood, and blood contains the history of the person. As such, it’s something very magical, because it’s something very intimate. In the moment in which the person lays down, and I sit next to them, in the moment that I generate pain upon them in a certain manner, I am playing a bit with the sensitivity of these people, as well as fear. Therefore I have to be very careful with this. And I have to be very loving because this is a moment of tension for them.
That is really what it’s like to get a tattoo isn’t it? Being vulnerable, but also being fierce because you have to muster the force to put up with what many find to be a very uncomfortable experience.
You’ve just used a very important word, which is that people are vulnerable in this situation. It’s an emotional experience that is being marked on them. Whether they want to remember the experience or not, they have to come through this painful process, and at the end, when they have achieved it, they have passed a challenge. This is why tattooing is a ritual.