One artist’s mission to preserve artistic integrity through social commentary blooms in the realm of Southwestern art, as the once-lost genre of fine leather tooling is used to connect a new generation to images of the past.
Text by BBI Staff | Photos: Andy Hartmark
Where is my John Wayne?
Where is my prairie song?
Where is my happy ending?
Where have all the cowboys gone?
-Paula Cole, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”
The answer to Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Paula Cole’s proverbial question is embodied perfectly by a man who practices “postmortem tattoo artistry” under the moniker “El Vaquero Muerto.” If she had been truly searching, she would have found him where he rightfully belongs-in the desert. Much like the determined saguaro cactus, his artwork rises as a beacon of social commentary defining survival and strength, embodying the cost of freedom in a world rife with weakness and cowardice. Southwestern images and Dia de los Muertos themes run rampant throughout his leather work, paintings, and illustrations, as this Last of the Mohicans strives to keep cowboy art alive. “I want to bring Southwest art out of the doctor’s office,” he says wryly via telephone. “I’ve had friends tell me that I’m the only ‘cowboy artist’ that they respect.”
This self-professed libertarian with an affinity for tattoo art and culture is certainly living up to that respect, as his leather work alone is nothing short of groundbreaking. Using a variety of self-taught techniques, El Vaquero Muerto has elevated the art form while carving out his own niche within the pantheon of today’s great modern artists. Ironically, “the dead cowboy” is bringing this type of art back to life within the mainstream, and even more ironic is the fact that his prime canvas comes from the carcass of animals that have moved on to greener pastures. This resurrection becomes even more connected through the Native American lore of the Phoenix, which, incidentally, is El Vaquero Muerto’s hometown. It would seem his is a life that was predestined, and he appreciates his own journey and hopes that others appreciate theirs as well. “I’m a huge proponent of anarchic-capitalism and the ability and will of people to get out and formulate their own ideas and destiny,” he says.
As one-of-a-kind as his existence is, so too are his designs. And with everything being custom-made by hand, no two pieces are ever the same.
In a derivative, commercial art world filled with reproductions, prints, and an overall lack of creativity, El Vaquero Muerto remains dedicated to preserving artistic standards while still providing social commentary that speaks to the power of individuality and self expression. His artwork is the refreshing oasis in the desert of today’s modern scene. Maybe he is the last cowboy left.
How did you get started in the art world?
I was doing fashion design classes, and I decided that I wanted to do some edgy things with leather. I went over to the leather store and discovered that you could put pictures into leather through tooling. I decided it would be my focus along with painting and illustration that I do.
Why did you choose to work with leather?
Leather is just something I’ve always loved. There’s a smell and a texture to it. It’s sort of like being a “postmortem tattoo artist.” I’m all about it; part of the reason for the Dia de los Muertos theme is that death should be a part of life, not just an abrupt ending. We should look at it that way; I think that’s a healthier view. The leather is something that was once alive and now it isn’t, but it’s given a new life through art. I studied with some Native Americans in California, and they preached the values that if you are going to take something’s life you should use every part of it. Leather is certainly the smallest byproduct of cattle slaughter, so I feel that it’s really important to take the leather and do something cool with it… that’s what I tell all the crazy vegans when they get on my case [laughs].
Did you go to school for your art?
Not really. I took a few classes in fashion design, but I was pretty self-taught. I experimented a bit and traded techniques and ideas with fellow leather artists, but over the past six or seven years I’ve grown to be able to do a lot of crazy stuff. The style of tooling and coloring that I do is radically different than traditional methods. I use a lot of hammering, using pattern tools, things like that to create designs. I do it by hand using mainly a tool that I use with hand strength and pressure. I like to call mine high-contrast leather tooling and coloring. The goal is to use the coloring to accentuate the tooling to make it more three-dimensional.
What types of products do you fashion with your leather work?
I make a ton of different things. I make guitar straps, belts, purses, wallets, bracelets, bracers. I tooled an underbust for a fire dancer in SD[A1], I’m currently working on a leather garter belt, and I’m also finishing up a leather bra. I’ve done chaps, flask covers, credit card holders, coin purses-I even did a Christmas ornament. The masks and guitar straps are the most popular. One of my more interesting products is probably the skate toe covers I make for roller derby girls. I’m working on getting my design patented, because it’s actually the only one on the market that seems to actually work [laughs].
What was the public’s general reaction to your work?
The reaction was great off the bat. I was selling my art within the first six months of my decision to do so. It brings out good memories for people. I’m surprised at how many of my customers or people who see my work have someone in their own family background who used to work with leather. It’s cool to connect with them that way. You’d be surprised at how many people whom you wouldn’t think would know much about leather actually do.
Has the tattoo culture inspired your art?
Yes, tattoo culture has been extremely influential in my art and in my life. I currently only have one tattoo, which I got last year from a friend of mine in L.A. I always wanted to wait until I was at the point with my own art skill that I felt that I could do every tattoo design myself in my own artwork. It’s only been since last year that I liked my own artwork enough to have someone put it on my skin. I’ve gotten a few sleeves planned out and a chest and neck piece. Now that I can create what I want, I’ll pretty much go crazy. There are a lot of artists out there that I respect and appreciate, but everything I get is more of a reminder to me of a lesson I’ve learned or a belief that I have that I don’t want to forget. It’s important for me to be able to capture those designs myself.
What’s your favorite piece of art that you’ve created?
I have one called “Only You Can Save Yourself.” It’s a skeleton cowboy in a desert night background with a gun to his own head. He’s looking at the viewer and there’s burning saguaro cacti behind him. It’s my reminder to myself that I can’t save anybody else; they’re the ones holding their own guns to their own heads. There’s no white knight who’s going to come save me; I’ve got to create my own destiny, make my own way, and fight for my own existence.
How has living in the Southwest inspired you?
I was born and raised in Arizona, and when I was younger I don’t think I appreciated the environment like I do now. Through my art, I wanted to share the spirit of the Southwest and the desert. The fierce independence and courage to survive in such an amazingly inhospitable environment is a constant source of inspiration. I think the cactus really symbolizes that, with the will to grow slowly and remain strong in the face of adverse conditions. I think the younger generation doesn’t see a lot of these images unless they’re in a more conservative form, so I hope that I can help to spread them.
Your art carries a strong Dia de los Muertos influence. Where does this stem from?
My family on my father’s side came up from Mexico, and my dad was born in Texas. My mom is white-European and also from Texas. They were actually very Christian, so growing up I had no connection to the Day of the Dead[A2] and really not a lot of connection to the Hispanic culture, either. As I grew older, I developed my own ideas, and I like the day of the dead concept because I do believe that death should be a part of life. I’m also a macabre motherfucker [laughs].
Tell me about your “Freedom of Death” theme. What’s behind that?
I do more than just the leather; I also do paintings and illustrations as well. I just did an art show called the “Freedom or Death” show. El Vaquero Muerto is all about freedom; it’s all about individuality, your ability to form your own destiny. The courage and strength it takes to preserve that is a constant source of inspiration for me. I see the country going in the wrong direction, as people are voting to take away small liberties from others in an attempt to gain some sort of security and safety. I really felt the need to speak out, because this is not the route we should be taking. Taking away even a small fraction of someone else’s liberty degrades yours in return and takes us farther down the slippery slope of becoming a totalitarian nation. I’ve been doing a lot of art centered on the theme of freedom or death, so it’s not just a slogan for me.
For more, click here for subscription.
Related content: Read more from Bound By Ink