I recently sat behind a woman at a conference whose sweatshirt was draping off her shoulder to reveal a tattoo: poppies and cannabis fronds blooming from the neck of a headless torso, arms wrapped in an embrace. I recognized the whispery lines and watercolor wash of color as the work of Mexico City’s single-needle tattoo artist, illustrator, and fashion designer Carla Escareño.
In an apartment overgrown with houseplants and collaged with her drawings, Carla Escareño’s two tabby cats lounge as she tattoos a universe populated by Edenic beings. “I suppose they all have features that stand out for me. Big, swollen eyes, a mouth about to say something,” she says. Her delicate sketches imagine a human world fused with the natural one. Hands stretch to cradle stars and sprigs of wildflowers, evil eyes radiate sun beams, and plants are everywhere: sprouting from a uterus, lungs, the ventricles of a human heart, or poking untamed from a pair of underwear. “In my mind, it’s as if they are Nature. Like a goddess—or a god, or whatever. The whole earth, but personified,” she says. “And that’s why I do them with plants coming out, or trees, rivers, mountains, the cosmos. It’s like the whole world that you have in your head.”
For Escareño, there are 1,000 reasons to get a tattoo: sometimes to remember someone, sometimes to heal. “Some of the most significant tattoos are portraits of people’s own bodies. For me this is important, because it’s like embracing yourself,” she says. “Usually it means they’ve been through difficult moments when they didn’t accept themselves or love themselves in the slightest.” Like plants that bring the broken bodies in Carla’s drawings back to life, her tattoos are a reminder that everybody has the possibility to grow.
One of her own tattoos, a self-portrait, relates to this. “I had just ended a super toxic relationship where the way I saw things and the way I thought about who I was had started to disappear,” she continues. “And when I gave myself that tattoo, it was like a recovery: ‘I’m mine. This is my home.’ I just imagined myself in the future, 70 years old—if we get there with all this polluted air—an old woman looking at my tattoo and thinking, ‘Wow, it also aged with me. It got wrinkled too,’ and remembering that time when I got myself back.”
Originally, she started drawing bodies as a way to understand her own. Since she was a child, her perception has been warped by micropsia, a condition that affects the way your eyes process size and distance. There have been times when she doesn’t recognize her own hands or legs to the point where they’re immobilized because her mind refuses to believe they’re her own. She spent months drawing her body as a kind of self-designed therapy, until one day she saw herself reflected on the paper. She hasn’t stopped drawing since.
Her next point of inspiration is a little different though. With a fantasy of taking her favorite artists and their work—not just visual art, but performance, theater, a film scene—and translating it to the skin, she’s started to involve herself in more conceptual tattoo projects. She recently partnered with a floral artist to give a flower-arranging workshop, then turned the finished bouquets into custom stencils “so that people would be involved in the creation of their own tattoo.” She also donated designs for the 10th anniversary of Fondo MARIA, a reproductive justice organization that supports safe, legal abortions for Mexican women, and is proud of how much her tattoos raised at auction.
“I always think about what in essence interests me,” says Escareño. “What is it that I want to be talking about? What is my constant? And I’ve always found that it’s the body. Returning to nature. Being who I am, in the most natural way possible. Freedom.”