Xiucoatl Mejia: Connecting Communities…From A Distance
Art is entrenched in Xiucoatl Mejia’s being. His creative talents can be seen in the beautiful depictions and designs that he has produced as a tattooist and a muralist. Xiucoatl, a twenty-year old native of Pomona, California, is still defining his identity as an artist, but he has articulated this powerful vision—to use his creative energy to (a) uplift the stories of his own indigenous community and (b) engage and connect members from different backgrounds.
What does this vision look like in practice? One of Xiucoatl’s most cherished projects is a mural he proposed and designed as a high school student in Claremont, California. The ‘Legacy of Creation’ mural features sixteen thought leaders and activists from around the world. His vision was to create a mural that engaged the school community in both substance and process.
“The paint on the mural came from a lot of different hands — teachers, students, and school faculty. This is something that should be emphasized with any sort of community art.”
Like many artists, Xiucoatl has been forced to modify the tools that he once relied on to achieve this vision in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way communities engage with each other. These changing social dynamics have left us with the difficult and unfortunate task of labeling work as ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’—a distinction that has resulted in the loss of work for so many hard working artists and creatives. But in spite of these circumstances, artists like Xiucoatl continue to navigate this difficult moment in creative ways.
Xiucoatl’s creative endeavors are inspired by his family, culture, and community.
Xiucoatl’s family is originally from Mexico, and his parents were born and raised in East Los Angeles. His father, also a tattooist and muralist, was always involved in an art project in his house or in the community, and this upbringing inspired the artistic pursuits of himself and his two sisters. Xiucoatl distinctly remembers accompanying his father to paint murals around their neighborhood in Pomona. His father worked at Good Time Charlie’s, an iconic tattoo parlor founded in the 1970’s in East Los Angeles focused on bringing the fine line style of tattooing to the professional world of tattooing. The fine line style has rich cultural roots. It’s a style born from the resourcefulness of incarcerated Chicanx community members who relied on the tools available to them —like needles and pens—to create tattoos that honored their narratives.
Xiucoatl’s work as a tattooist is inspired by the fine line chicanx style as well as his identity as a member of the Tonatierra indigenous community based in Phoenix. His parents always made great efforts to engage with the traditional rituals, ceremonies, and traditions of their community, and Xiucoatl was deeply inspired by their commitment to engaging with their heritage and the beauty of the traditions themselves.
“My father sun danced. Growing up, I remember attending sun dance and tipi ceremonies, and this really shaped my connection to and understanding of my community. My parents always actively inserted themselves in their community, and this is something I try to do as well.”
Xiucoatl’s family emphasized the importance of knowing the history behind a given art form and instilled in him a curiosity about the cultures and communities around him. He has incorporated his parents’ teachings in his approach as a tattoo artist. He acknowledges that tattooing is an ancient art form, and indigenous communities across the world have engaged in some version of this art form. As a result, he invested his time in studying the practices of these communities, including traditions from Japan and Polynesia. Xiucoatl notes the important symbolic value of tattoos, especially for indigenous communities like his who have experienced horrific atrocities at the hands of colonial powers:
“I’m coming from a people who have experienced one of the most brutal genocides in history. I want to give our communities designs that they can use to identify with their other camaradas and give them something that ties them to the land below us. Tattoos are something that make us feel sacred and connect us to the sentiments that our ancestors felt—many of the sentiments that we still feel today.”
The pandemic has forced Xiucoatl to develop new skills to support himself and his family.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way communities engage with each other, and Xiucoatl’s artistic pursuits were not immune to these changes. Xiucoatl was working at a tattoo parlor just as COVID-19 cases were rapidly increasing in the United States. Under California’s stay at home order issued earlier this year, tattoo parlors throughout the state were ordered to close. Artists and creatives from a wide range of industries suddenly found themselves unemployed, and the expenses and bills continued to pile up. Though the federal government expanded unemployment assistance to self-employed workers under the CARES Act, which allowed a number of artists and gig workers to receive benefits, the assistance is simply not sufficient to manage the losses that the pandemic has produced.
In an effort to pay his rent, bills, and other essential expenses, Xiucoatl turned to creating and selling drawings. He was able to purchase supplies for his drawings with the support of MAF’s LA Young Creatives Grant. The LA Creatives grant is an effort to provide immediate cash assistance to the nation’s most vulnerable communities, including artists and creatives. Thanks to the generous support of the Snap Foundation, MAF quickly mobilized to offer $500 grants to 2,500 creatives in the Los Angeles area as part of the scholarship initiative.
In addition to selling his drawings, Xiucoatl has invested his time in learning a number of new skills to support his family. He recently picked up plumbing, tile work, and throwing concrete to help his family complete renovations to their family home. When asked about the insights he has collected from navigating these unprecedented times, he says:
“Our people, our communities have always found ways to thrive and to hustle. They were thriving and hustling much before the pandemic. Now, there are hundreds of people struggling together. Many folks are starting to understand the struggle of communities around the world whose only choice was to live with these fears and to survive like this.”
In terms of his own profession, he’s hopeful that the pandemic will actually bring about positive changes. He believes that tattoo parlors will become more diligent about complying with safety and hygiene standards. He also remains hopeful about his own future and the future of creatives and artists across the nation. Though this has been a painful time for many communities, he believes that there will be a lot of beautiful work that reflects the inequities and resilience highlighted by the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It will be interesting to reflect back on this time. There will be a renaissance of artists producing great pieces and a lot of great artwork.”
Xiucoatl’s story illustrates the incontestable reality that art—in all of its forms—is essential to enabling people to connect with each other through empathy, shared space, or shared experience. Legislative designations aside, art is essential.
To see more of Xiucoatl’s drawings, please visit his instagram account @xiucoatlmejia. All work for sale is posted to his instagram. If you’d like to inquire about prices or commissions, please send a direct message or email to [email protected].