For as long as people have tattooed, death and the afterlife have been steady subject matter for tattoo artists. From skulls and reapers to angels and demons, the tattoo world has always had an understandable obsession with death—particularly given that most tattoos are only truly visible and remembered until the wearer’s passing, unlike a painting that may hang in a gallery for centuries.
Goethe Silva Mier (known primarily as just Goethe in the tattoo community) is exploring those themes of death in ways most tattoo artists have never even thought of before. The Mexican artist channels his Aztec roots to bring some ancient cultural views of the afterlife in both his symbolic tattoos and his artwork. But now, Goethe has taken things a step further with the opening of his first solo art show, aptly titled “Underworld.”
Through sculptures, paintings, and museum-quality replicas, Goethe welcomes visitors to take a journey into the culture and history surrounding the Aztec underworld of Mictlan as well as other levels of the afterlife. While other exhibits rely on cheap imitations, Goethe has constructed burial sites and statues made of the exact same dirt, bones, and other materials that have been dug up as artifacts in Mexico. For Goethe, "Underworld" isn’t just an art show; it’s a way to welcome people into a part of his culture that he’s been passionate about for quite some time.
“I’ve been tattooing for 23 years, and ever since I started tattooing, this has been my passion,” Goethe says of "Underworld’s" grim subject matter. “My work has been focused on the dark side of Mesoamerican cultures, so that is what this is about. I’d like for everyone to learn a little bit about the culture and about what the afterlife means in the Aztec culture.”
Originally from Durango, Mexico, Goethe spent close to a decade tattooing south of the border before moving up to join the legions of tattooers in SoCal. Thanks to his ability to travel the world with his artwork these days, the veteran artist can compare the beliefs of the afterlife in his culture to others around the globe. Outside of modern American society, Goethe sees many similar viewpoints on the afterlife in cultures around the world.
“Everything is about the duality of life and death,” Goethe says. “You are born to live again. Duality in death and life is everywhere in every culture around the world.”
But while you’re welcome to go see Goethe’s artwork at Underworld without a personalized history lesson first, getting tattooed by the artist is a different story. It’s not as simple as choosing a design and taking a seat, as Goethe wants to make sure every one of his clients gets a unique design and experience.
“I use high contrast on my tattoos and I try to put that deep meaning into every tattoo,” Goethe says. “Everything that I tattoo has a meaning behind it, so I consult with people on what they are going to get, and I show them a little bit about the culture before they get it. I tell them the story of every piece, every god, every deity, and then we talk about it so I can create something special for them. I want them to have that dark feeling.”
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Even for those who might not know if they’re going to be interested in the Aztec vision of the afterlife, the striking visuals of Underworld are reasons enough to check it out. If you ask Collective Ink Gallery’s head honcho, Big Gus, the transformation of his tattoo shop into a gallery of the afterlife will likely leave you speechless.
“It’s not just spiritual, it’s visually crazy,” Big Gus adds. “I think it’s one of those experiences where when people come in, it’s going to be dead silence because everything you’re looking at is so intense.”
Underworld is open for public viewing from noon until 5:00 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays until November 14.
Collective Ink Gallery, 6072 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 893-3800. Instagram: @tattoosbygoethe