When Leticia Vazquez-Smith moved to Columbus from Mexico City, Mexico, “nobody spoke Spanish, and I felt kind of lonely.” After lecturing for the Columbus International Program about Dia de los Muertos, a holiday she’d celebrated since childhood, Vazquez-Smith decided to start a Day of the Dead event here.
That was 13 years ago. Today most of us at least recognize Dia de los Muertos’ makeup and dapper skeletons. Allusions to the celebration — through tattoos, costumes and artwork — are popular for many reasons, and the trend has created a challenge for advocates to spread the celebration without burying the holiday’s spiritual message under the party (hello, St. Patrick’s Day).
Aztec, Mexican, Native American and Catholic celebrations have intertwined to form Dia de los Muertos. Mexico celebrates the holiday the first two days of November. Observances vary, but most festivities include altars with gifts of food, flowers and drink for the departed. Dia de los Muertos is a chance to honor what the dead brought to life.
“The art looks so intimidating, but it’s really cool that that culture can embrace death,” said local artist Megan Stropki. “It’s something that’s comforting to them.”
Stropki is part of a growing group incorporating Day of the Dead imagery in their tattoos, said Short North Tattoo’s J.Brett Prince, who did Stropki’s ink.
“I think the style has gained popularity because it combines beauty with the inevitable end,” Prince said. “Tattoos have traditionally been a way of paying tribute to the beloved departed. It’s a perfect theme to express that sentiment visually while remaining light-hearted and optimistic.”
The optimism inherent in celebrating lost life is part of what attracted Kat Marie Moya to the holiday. She first experienced it in 1994 on a Tijuana day trip.
“It took me years of thinking about how great in meaning Dia de los Muertos is to actually find a way to implement it into my own life,” Moya said. “I felt I had no right to celebrate a holiday that I did not grow up with or that was connected to a culture unlike my own.”
Moya began a tradition five years ago called Por Vida, a weekend-long roundup of art that commemorates Dia de los Muertos.
“Healing and handling death in this way has helped me tremendously. … Por Vida is an attempt to bridge a culture gap and expose this wonderful holiday for all to utilize in their own way,” Moya said. “I just hope the meaning stays intact and it doesn’t become a novelty.”
Vazquez-Smith seconded that sentiment.
“It is sad to see when people are using Day of the Dead as a marketing tool,” she said.
But a respectful craving for knowledge about the tradition is here, Vazquez-Smith added (a far cry from the racist reactions she recalled experiencing when she first started celebrating Day of the Dead in Columbus).
Ultimately, Dia de los Muertos is not about being of a particular religious or ethnic lineage. “It is about being human,” Vazquez-Smith said. “It’s about feeling connected to the living and to the dead.”