Every year I’m face painting for the Día de los Muertos procession in San Francisco. I set up my painting station, table and chairs in the late afternoon at Garfield Park. I enjoy the beautiful altars and the scent of marigolds. The park becomes a public space to honor the loss of loved ones and to connect with one another through art and expression over the timeless subject of death and dying.
I was working as a visiting scholar in the Latino/a Studies Department at San Francisco State University when I celebrated the holiday for the first time. My mentoring professor taught a class about Latin American Art History that I attended with much pleasure and profit. He introduced us to the Día de los Muertos tradition and told us what it really celebrates. The Latin American culture recognizes death as a natural part of human experience - a continuum from birth to growing up to a contributing member of the community. On Día de los Muertos, the lives of the deceased are celebrated with food, drink, and activities the dead enjoyed in life. On this day, they become once again a part of the community. They awake from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.
The most common symbol for Día de los Muertos are the calaveras (skulls). In my art history class, we looked into the different aspects of José Guadalupe Posada’s „La Calavera Catrina“. She is one of the most traditional figures at Día de los Muertos - a skeleton dressed as a wealthy lady, symbolizing that the riches cannot buy immortality, and the rich die just as the poor do. Ironically, this image that was originally a critique on society became a hipster fashion icon and Dia de los Muertos turned into a pop-culture extravaganza.
At Garfield Park you are pretty much save from the hipsters. Most of them go directly to the procession. While painting the faces, I like to talk with my clients to get them in the right spirit. I basically mix skulls with flowers in the traditional way. For me, the skulls represent not only death but also rebirth. Flowers are the symbol to overcome the fear of death and celebrate life. For my design, I used Neutrogena baby sunscreen because all white cream makeup and foundation were sold out at that time. I painted the face with eyeliner to resemble a skull and incorporated green-golden flowers with the Revlon PhotoReady Eye Art Duo Pen and some rhinestones for the ornaments. I put flowers in my hair to finish the look.
Later that evening, I joined the procession to honor family and friends who have passed away. A lot of people carried pictures of their loved ones in memory. I think it is a wonderful tradition that helps people to grieve. I’m sure when my parents die this will affect how I celebrate this holiday even more. I felt ashamed for some hipsters who dressed like it was still Halloween and looked for the best photo opportunities. Others used the procession for political purposes. They raised awareness for the war in Syria or mourned for their housing rights.
When I entered the bus, the driver asked me: “How much did you pay for your makeup?” I answered, “Nothing! I made it myself. I had a great time face painting for the procession. You should come and get painted next year!” Then I smiled and thought to myself, this is the difference between those hipsters and me – they only consume your culture, but I contribute to the community.