Mel Dominguez, Tucson artist and creator of this year’s All Souls Procession poster image, talks about her magic hat, the nostalgia of riding the railway, and speaking for the desconocidos. By Joan Calcagno
Early bird or night owl? “Both. I can’t sleep. I’ve had my episodes with death. I have chronic pancreatitis and it hit me at the age of 29. It exploded. And it was critical. You take medication or they put you to sleep so I had all these dreams. Now that I’m awake, I can’t just let this time go, you know? The essence of time. I’m fixed on it now. I take my siestas – catch a cat-nap in the middle of the day – and then I get going again. I feel blessed to be here and awake.”
Favorite accessory? “My hat. I didn’t wear it today. My wife told me ‘Hey, take it off!’ because I’m always wearing it to work and at home. It was created by one of my old-time friends from when I used to paint graffiti. I’m always wearing that hat. It’s like my Felix the Cat magic bag – I pull it off and grab ideas out of it.”
Favorite faux pas? “One time, Jehovah’s witnesses came knocking and I opened the door because I love talking to people. As I’m answering the door, my neighbor who lives across the street – he’s about five or six – he opens his door too and yells ‘Hey Mel, you’re not supposed to answer the door!’. Me and the Jehovah’s witnesses are just standing there looking at each other – I wanted to evaporate. Like, beam me up somebody! He’s a great little kid, but that’s my favorite faux pas – he actually said that out loud.”
Who is your dream customer? “The people here in Tucson just exemplify that. They’re just awesome. I don’t even know anymore, I’ve been able to do so many awesome things. [As to a specific customer -] Nickelodeon, if they were to come to me, or a toy company and say ‘Hey, Mel, we love this little character, let’s rock ‘n roll’ or Adult Swim or anything – I just want to share and have people laugh.”
If I weren’t an artist I would… “Oh, I’d be a train engineer. Yaahhh. They get to travel the country and bring things to people and take people to other places. You sit up in the front and it’s the biggest motor you could ever ride and the biggest horn. It’s a dream – the railroad – it can go on and on. It’s about dreams and people and wanderlust – the hobos who hopped the trains. It’s a thing. You can wash dishes for two weeks and then ride on, you know?”
If I could change one thing I would… “Even if it was tough to deal with at that time and moment, it really made me who I am right now. But if there was one thing – change the relationship with my dad’s family. Maybe as a young person, maybe write more. But as a young kid you don’t know how easy that is – that four miles isn’t that far. That you could walk or bicycle to be closer to my dad’s family – [and not lose touch].”
What does the skeleton imagery in your work mean to you? “I started utilizing that image because I’ve done Day of the Dead [graphics] before in east Los Angeles, but when I came here seven years ago, it was such a shell shock. In LA I worked in the shops with migrants making clothes. But when we came to Arizona I didn’t see them alive. I saw them dead. So celebrating Day of the Dead here in Arizona, it meant something totally different for me.
“And I saw a lot of artists painting Day of the Dead – which is cool and awesome – but as a person of Mexican descent and being an eye-witness to what goes on here on the border, I feel obligated to really explain and help people understand what’s going on here – because I didn’t feel right, I mean how do you take money [for that]?
“But’s what’s cool is that this year at Pop Cycle for the November 7th show called Mixtec Tux, I created a t-shirt design and it’s got a little woman on there and little cross and it says ‘Desconocido’, which means ‘unknown”. So many are unknown because of their skeletal remains. The proceeds from the design I’m donating to Derechos Humanos’ Missing Migrant Project. How cool to be an artist in this time. I feel I’ve been given a purpose as an artist. Not just to be an artist in this community of Tucson but to speak for the people that come here to better their lives.”
* The Mixtec Tux show takes place at Pop Cycle, Friday November 7th, 7-9pm.