Handcraft tradition + graffiti = art

Ricardo painting an alebrije in his parent’s workshop

For most of us, the early 20’s is a time when we look to find our own identities, yet are aware how much we are a product of our upbringing (whether we like it or not).

For Ricardo Ángeles, this struggle may be more difficult than for many others, as he is the son of the famous alebrije makers Jacobo and Maria Ángeles of San Martín Tilcajete, Oaxaca… a town defined wooden animals painted in vibrant hues and intricate designs.

He began working in his parents’ workshop at an early age, apprenticing the way many of his generation have in his small hometown. Making the alebrijes is how he learned to draw and paint. However much of this work is tedious and repetitive, especially if the workshop relies heavily on repeating traditional designs. Ricardo told me that a number his friends have felt trapped both by the work and the fact that there is little else in the town. Some have rebelled by leaving the craft altogether.

12338877_762105597257104_1285049260_nFortunately, in the Ángeles family there is more flexibility, and by the time Ricardo was 14, his parents had allowed him to begin experimenting with the designs on his alebrijes, taking the basic concepts into new directions.

But his interest in drawing went beyond abstract decoration and into drawing figures. Without access to formal drawing classes, he began by taking photos of the alebrijes in the workshop, then copying the 2D representation on paper. He also studied prints of artists that he likes, copying them to learn how they are made.


13109054_896989773781055_1458561698_nIn During his pre-teens and adolescence he attended school in the city of Oaxaca. It is not far, but it is far larger than Tilcajete. Here, Ricardo eventually became interested in graffiti along with a number of friends. Opportunities to practice this and other forms of urban art are limited as graffiti is not viewed favorably in the city of Oaxaca, even less in small rural towns. Despite this, Ricardo has created a number of small murals in the city and even in Tilcajete, all with permission.

Two years ago, Ricardo began studying at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana in Mexico City. For his parents, the important thing was to go to college, for Ricardo it was to go to Mexico City, not only to physically leave Oaxaca but also to become exposed to other ideas and influences. Here, he is studying graphic design and communication. His schooling so far has mostly given him a conceptual framework for what he has learned from the alebrije-making and drawing. This time in Mexico City has allowed him to learn about more kinds of techniques, such as lithography, and a much wider variety of papers and other supplies than are available in Oaxaca. Ángeles tells me that just about all of the money he earns, goes to buying art supplies.

Perhaps most importantly, his time in the megalopolis has given him contact with many graffiti and urban artists.

Despite the fact that his 2D work is most indicative of his talent, it is still only a sideline… and activity to which he can devote waking hours not otherwise dedicated to school (when he is in Mexico City) or duties running the family workshop (when he is in Oaxaca). I do not know when this kid sleeps.


In essence, Ricardo is looking for a way to reinterpret his heritage in a way that allows him to express who he is, and the world of his generation.

Although he started by drawing on paper, which he still does, he preferred format is large-scale, murals on walls and gigantic canvases, prompting his parents to add a large studio for him on the family compound.


His experiences in Oaxaca and Mexico City have allowed him to start reinterpreting the traditions he learned working at his parents workshop. His main challenge is adapting the traditional animal and abstract symbols of the Zapotec world of Oaxacan alebrijes to a two-dimensional format, changing the form without losing the basic messages. One major change has been that the traditional abstract designs painted on alebrijes are in second plane, with the animals themselves, in much more realistic form, taking the foreground. This allows Ricardo to explore natural elements of the animals such as feathers, scales and fur that traditional alebrije making does not.  The animals themselves have symbolic qualities, which extend from the pre Hispanic period when they were considered gods or representatives of gods. This does not mean that the animals are simply realistically depicted. They often have symbols on them as well, such as headdresses/crowns. Human elements sometimes appear as well, but are fairly rare.


The background abstractions generally tie the elements together. His compositions always contain one or more circles as a testiment of cyclical nature of existence. His most recent work has shifted to the use of black and white lines, with the occasional use of color. Ricardo states that this use of black and white is to represent duality, but he does also contrast with the traditional use of many bright colors in alebrijes.



Ricardo admits that his parents’ work is the obvious base of his art, but it is also obvious that he is finding ways to go beyond what his parents have done so well. The second strongest influence in his work is that of various graffiti and urban artists of his generation, such as that of Sinaloan artist Mazatl and Belgian artist Roa, especially for his black and white work with animals.


He is a little leary about studying formal artists in depth, concerned about losing originality, but Ricardo did speak in depth about the work of Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, especially his use of circles and color, and mentioned the mural work of Mexicans Siquieros and Jorge Gonzalez Camarena.

Only very recently has the young artist begun to upload photos of his work on the Internet. As of now, they are only available on Instagram  https://www.instagram.com/ricardoangelesm/


All images except the main one are from the artist, used with permission. The main image is by the author.


















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