Meet Mexico's Exuberant, Butterfly-Loving Street Artist

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Why you should care

Because Sofía Castellanos is elevating other women in the urban art scene.

“Butterflies are like a direct representation of being human, I think. We all spend our lives struggling, chasing … the best version of ourselves, [undergoing] constant transformation, positive change.” Listening to Mexican street artist and illustrator Sofía Castellanos reflect on the delicate creature that has become her creative calling card, I can’t help but think she could just as easily be describing herself: vibrant, constantly evolving and disarmingly positive. And while much could be said for the trope of the tortured artist, Castellanos is anything but tortured.

Seasoning our chat with liberal dollops of English, a keepsake from the year she spent in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Castellanos paints the picture of a somewhat charmed childhood. The eldest of three, she was born in Mexico City to an architect and a businessman, and grew up in the small town of Lomas de Cocoyoc, Morelos. Castellanos remembers being “always tanned,” roughhousing with her two brothers and playing tennis (she was nationally ranked). Having dabbled in various art classes as a child, drawing became an all-consuming pastime as she got older, and she immersed herself in creating “very, very average” comic strips based on her life.

Green maharajas

Green Maharajas.

Today, at just 25, Castellanos has been commissioned by Chanel and Quién, Mexico’s leading lifestyle magazine, to paint portraits of 31 Mujeres que Amamos (Women We Love), partnered with Nike for a mural project in Mexico City and created a fantastical mural for the Mexican Embassy in Bangkok — all while pursuing personal projects as an emerging talent on Mexico’s art scene. One person she’d love to collaborate with? Taiwanese artist James Jean. Someone she’d love to illustrate? Mila Kunis.

So when Castellanos insists that “I’ve been incredibly lucky,” it’s an assertion tough to square with her refusal to skate by on her innate abilities. Instead, and only after she “chickened out” of studying fine arts, she enrolled in graphic design at Mexico City’s Ibero-American University, a move she credits for her meticulous approach to art. “I’ve noticed that tons of artists … who come from a graphic design background … have a different ‘chip,’ like they have this quality of perfectionism to them,” she says.

Castellanos’ work, like the artist herself, is exuberant, life-affirming and disarmingly positive.

While at university Castellanos also honed her illustration skills, taking a pencil technique class (“it’s my yoga,” she says) at Mexico City’s Michiko Cultural Centre; more recently, she took an intensive course on art history, painting and drawing at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy. An informal part of her arts education, she adds, was meeting the Mexican artist Gildo Medina, considered one of the world’s leading illustrators. He “taught me everything, changed the way I thought … changed my life,” Castellanos says, referring once more to her butterfly-like evolution.

“Sofía’s style is unique,” her friend and fellow muralist Francesco Pinzón tells me — “fresh … natural, fantastical.” When I ask about the prevalence of nature in her work, Castellanos laughs — she laughs often, as if to dispel any notion that she takes herself too seriously — before admitting, “I know, I feel like it’s always my theme … I see my work as a celebration of life.” Indeed, her work, like the artist herself, is exuberant and life-affirming — traits not readily admired in an industry where personal trauma, not unabashed joy, is validated. But, as Castellanos puts it, there are already plenty of people focused on “all the bad things going on.”

Ana hop grey

Ana Hop Grey.

Still, there are critics dismissive of Castellanos’ work — both for its subject matter and the artist’s commercial objectives. Local art curator Luzma Moctezuma claims that “Sofía Castellanos is betting for the mass public,” adding, “You can choose to appreciate works with butterflies and women … but I need more to feed my brain.”

Of course opinion will always be divided when it comes to choice of subject matter, but the assertion that artistic depth and commercial savvy are mutually exclusive is short-sighted. After all, Castellanos’ appeal to “the mass public” is what has allowed her to move from painting walls in Mexico to international commissions and collaborations with big-name brands. These big-name collaborations, in turn, have elevated her work — and the work of several other women, including Paola Delfín and Lourdes Villagomez, in Mexico’s urban art and muralism scene, a field historically dominated by men, from Diego Rivera to Farid Rueda. With a nod to her contemporaries, Castellanos sees a future for “girl power” in Mexican art.

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Sofía Castellanos at work in her studio in Mexico City.

Source Israel G. Hernandez

Moctezuma’s argument also ignores the importance of accessibility, which was the overarching aim of Mexican muralism. The government-funded public art initiative was born in the wake of the revolution and intended to educate the illiterate masses about Mexican history while instilling a sense of national pride and identity. Muralism thrived in Mexico for much of the 20th century, giving rise to the urban art tradition Castellanos is carrying forward. “Muralism in Mexico is incredibly vital in our history, and I also feel that we have this responsibility to keep it present,” she says.

What about illustration — is it as important as street art? “Of course,” she responds immediately. “We literally need art in order to survive.”

For this young artist who has already tasted considerable success, what’s next? “Everything,” she says simply.

5 Questions for Sofía Castellanos

1. What’s your favorite book? The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas! It was one of the first books I read and it’s [still] one of my very favorites.

2. What do you worry about? I worry about not living long enough to do the things I want to do. It makes me anxious.

3. What’s the one thing you can’t live without? I couldn’t ever live without music. I couldn’t ever live without cheese or chocolate. And without my family, no.

4. Who’s your hero? This is a tricky question. I don’t just have one hero, I have lots. But I love how Gaudí [the Spanish architect] thought. I’d like to get inside his brain, see how it works. And whoever invented queso Oaxaca.

5. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? Barcelona. When I went, I felt like, “Wow, this is the most magical place in the world, I want to stay here!” And, though I’ve never been, I feel like I would love to live in Asia for a while too, somewhere like Japan.

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