The Stylization and Sterilization of “Catrina Art”


Where do up-and-coming artists get discovered these days? Sure, there may be some who – with a little patronage – get to present their work in galleries and exhibitions. Others, such as Mexico City’s Axolotl Collective, might gain traction via street art and “guerilla” art campaigns. Of course, Mexico has a rich history in the latter. But the truth is that social media is the dominant platform for the promotion of art, at least at the subsistence level where artists are trying to build their reputations and make enough money to get by. Artists will build and connect with communities, earning commissions or, as is more common, steering them toward their stores on personal websites or platforms like Etsy and Society 6.

What we might loosely call “Catrina art” is prevalent on social media, too. And those sellers’ platforms like Etsy are stuffed full of artworks inspired by La Calavera Catrina. Of course, that should not be surprising to anyone. Catrina art is – and has been for a long time – ubiquitous. You’ll find it in tattoo parlors, movies like Disney’s Coco, Canal 5’s Catalina la Catrina, and many Day of the Dead-inspired games like Rueda de Chile and Muertos Multiplier Megaways.

A campaign that backfired

Catalina la Catrina was an interesting episode, of course, because the 2020 campaign by Canal 5 to create a character to inspire children to create their own artwork seemed to backfire. The competition (Canal 5 promised to feature the best fan works by children) was hijacked on social media, prompting a flood of lewd and sexualized depictions of the character. Canal 5 was forced to abandon the campaign eventually, although Catalina la Catrina does remain part of social media meme culture.

Yet, the point about Catalina is allegorical for Catrina art in general. Namely, its ubiquitousness leads to the original point of the artwork being somewhat lost. It becomes sterilized. Now, we do not maintain that José Guadalupe Posada’s original satirical illustrations are the only way to interpret the art. But it remains the case that the focus is now on the aesthetic, not the meaning. This is not uncommon in the art world: The Mexico that Posado satirized no longer exists, or has evolved at least, in the same way, that Goya’s horrors of war-torn Spain are but a memory for scholars and Andy Warhol’s commercialism in the United States has gone far beyond the artist’s imagination.

A threat from AI

Of course, all art evolves. And we know that Posado’s original ideas were adopted by other great artists like the legendary muralist Diego Rivera. We also know that Catrinas have been created to honor icons from Selena to María Félix. But online, in particular, the focus is on the aesthetic. It is mass reproduction art that struggles to find any meaning beyond the aesthetic pleasures of looking at it. Again, this is not a criticism, as such. Artists are just trying to make a buck, and they find a willing audience wishing to pay for depictions of Catrina prints and paintings.

But art without meaning makes an artist vulnerable. And we can finish by pointing out one of the most talked about topics in the online art community right now – artificial intelligence. AI-produced art is going to represent an existential threat to artists, especially those who are at the gig level. Despite the wonders of Midjourney and similar applications, they are unable to elicit meaning. The AI-generated images are impressive to those who don’t look for context or implication in art. Many artists do take inspiration from Catrina imagery, and they can express that in innovative and meaningful ways. But those that don’t may be more vulnerable to the great disruption that is coming with artificial intelligence in the art world. 

Mexico Daily Post