Storied Mexico City: The Art of Muralism


On 2 November, Mexicans will be celebrating Día de Muertos (The Day of the Dead). Although the celebration may look different this year due to recent events, Mexicans will still carry on the tradition, safely, to commemorate their loved ones in colourful and spiritual ways. 

To pay tribute to this beautiful tradition, Storied explores the art scene in Mexico City and delves into its long history with muralism. To help us discover the city’s colourful art scene, we spoke to artist, muralist and illustrator Sofia Castellanos. Based in Mexico City, Sofia is making waves in the contemporary art scene with her stunning portraits, magical storytelling, and portrayals of femininity. Just like her art, Sofia is a vibrant and positive soul. Her paintings are magical and live in multiple fantasies. The artist studied graphic design but always knew she wanted to be an artist. Inspired by surrealism with a focus on positivity, Sofia revealed the importance of bringing art closer to more people – what better way to do that than to create public art that’s accessible for everyone.  During our down to earth video chat, Sofia shared how art and creativity is now more important than ever and believes, “Living a more creative life is good for the soul”.

Sofia Castellanos posing with one of her murals

Tradition and folklore play such an important role in Mexican art, especially the Day of the Dead. Why is this tradition so important for the Mexican art scene?

Sofia: Day of the Dead is very important to Mexicans because it’s kind of magical. This tradition shows how Mexicans see the world differently. In general, we’re always positive and not taking things too seriously. Instead of mourning the dead, we’re celebrating them. On this day, you focus on what that person meant to you and what makes them stay alive forever.

Lately, I’ve been drawn to paint more about the Day of the Dead tradition because I’m attracted to the colours, flowers and the mysticity behind it. Last year I did an immersive exhibit in Europe, led by Patrón Tequila, with four other artists from Mexico City based on this tradition. It was a really cool challenge and an opportunity to explore the tradition even more. I would definitely like to focus more on it so I can further explore and experiment on these subjects. It’s so sad we can’t go out and celebrate it this year but of course we’ll celebrate it in different ways. It’s so pretty and I think it’s the best time to visit Mexico City.

In 2008, UNESCO declared the Día de Muertos celebration as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This beautiful tradition has been rooted and conserved from hundreds of years ago and to this day, Mexicans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate the lives of loved ones that have passed away. On this day, souls of the dead awaken so that they can reunite with the living for a day of celebration. Known for the intricately decorated calaveras (skulls) and calacas (skeletons), vibrant colours, and delicious food, the Day of the Dead remains a special tradition worldwide.

What does your artwork focus on? 

Sofia: I’m the type of artist that finds inspiration through happiness as opposed to suffering [laughs]. Some say artists have to be tortured to get good art out of them but for me it’s the opposite. I find inspiration through travelling but obviously we can’t now. So lately I find inspiration from Mexico and Mexican culture, and I really want to show its magic. I really like telling stories in my paintings so I do a lot of portraits. The human figure is really interesting to me and when I’m painting someone’s face, I think I discover more about the human spirit somehow. My work is also more figurative because I like to represent and understand the things around me by painting it. I also find inspiration in femininity. I like to think that being feminine doesn’t have to mean you’re delicate but on the contrary – it’s about embracing who you are and not having to hide it. It’s powerful to be feminine and the definition of that has expanded today and means so many different things. 

I notice a lot of butterflies are incorporated in your work – is there a reason for that?

Sofia: I started painting butterflies because they have a lot of different meanings around the world. In Mexico, butterflies are supposed to be the spirits that can fly from this world to the other to bring messages, so they’re like spiritual messengers. I think butterflies are like humans because as people, we spend our whole lives developing into a (ideally) better and more beautiful version of ourselves. 

Muralism has and continues to be a big part of Mexican art, particularly in Mexico City. The muralism movement began in the early 1920s, when the government commissioned artists to educate the population about the country’s history while presenting a powerful vision of its future through their artwork. This all started after the Mexican Revolution so the murals were inspired by the idealism of the Revolution which resulted in creating politically-influenced murals that were available to the public, and highlighted Mexico’s pre-colonial history and culture. Artists used this opportunity and their murals to bring hope and represent the country’s bright future ahead.

Sofia Castellanos painting a mural

What’s the current art scene like in Mexico? 

Sofia: More people and brands are taking an interest in art. They’re starting to do mural projects – muralism has always been a big part of Mexico but now it feels like it’s all coming back even more. Murals are really special because they become part of the landscape. I notice how people slow down to look at them so I think it’s a special and a beautiful way to create public art that’s accessible to everyone. Also cities are beautiful but they can also be grey at times, so it’s nice to give it some colour. The art scene here is a small community, so everyone knows and supports each other and artists tend to work together. I’ve been painting for over six years now, and I feel connected to everyone.

Which artists have inspired you over the years?

Sofia: My favourite artist ever is James Jean – he’s a genius! Everything is a masterpiece and he creates these beautiful stories. Also he’s been able to do commercial work without compromising the magic of his work. Another one is Gildo Medina. I met him when I was starting out as an artist and I worked for him for a couple of years. He’s really good and has influenced my career. Another artist I love is a muralist and friend of mine, Paola Delfin. She’s probably one of the greatest muralists in Mexico right now. She has really powerful and strong work inspired by heritage and women.

What’s your ritual during the creation process? Do you listen to music? 

Sofia: When I get to work, I do a lot of research on the theme that I’m doing before I start anything. While I’m researching, there’s a lot of elements that pop up that make the work even more special. I also like taking breaks – I have two dogs so I go for walks and have a glass of wine or cup of tea. It’s important to step away for a bit and then get back to it with fresh eyes and mind. My studio is in my home so it’s nice to wake up, have a cup of coffee and start my day there. I also love listening to music as I don’t like the quiet. I have a guilty pleasure [laughs]. I mean I like listening to everything and it depends on the day, but I really like soundtrack music! I listen to anything from Hans Zimmer and I’ve listened to the Avatar soundtrack quite a bit. I also like 80s music – the soundtrack of Stranger Things is just too good! 

The artist has been keeping busy with a few exciting projects in the works. A personal project she’s been working on is called ‘Mitos y Rituales para renovar el mundo’, which translates to ‘Myths and rituals to renew the world’. Brands also turn to Sofia for her art to portray the human spirit and bring out important messages through her murals. One of her recent collaborations is with Carolina Herrera Makeup Collection, a makeup line that’s also advertised as a stylish accessory. Knowing her work of portraying the feminine spirit, the brand has asked the artist to do an homage of editors, from magazines like Vogue and others, and paint their portrait. They have entrusted her with this campaign and have given her the freedom to capture these influential women through her colourful ways. 

Any upcoming projects we should get excited about?

Sofia: One upcoming project that I’m really excited about (and if it still happens) is a mural project which will be my first one of the year! It’s for the European Union organization in Mexico and they want to create a really big mural to celebrate human rights and give a message of hope because of everything that’s going on in the world right now. It’s a project that I’m really looking forward to. It’s supposed to happen by the end of the year (November/December) but if not then, it can be later depending on how things are going. I think it’s cool how these organizations want to give back and use public art to do it.

Follow Sofia Castellanos and browse through her magical masterpieces. It’s no wonder why many brands and organizations want to work with this magical artist. // Instagram // Facebook // YouTube