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Art served a variety of functions for Santa Barbara artist Adriana Arriaga.

As a high school student recovering from an eating disorder, Arriaga decided she would become a graphic designer to challenge the heavily photoshopped depictions of “beauty” in popular media of the 2000s, the very depictions that contributed to her own state of health.

“I remember researching who was responsible for Photoshopping women and [beauty] standards that we saw growing up as Millennials,” she said; Apparently, each model was “super thin, with fair skin.”

In college, Arriaga’s mission was further clarified. She took a Chicano Studies course at Santa Barbara City College, where she learned about the history of the Chicano people, elders, artists, immigrants, activists and community leaders – her first time learning it even as Chicana herself.

Adriana Arriaga stands in front of one of the exhibit pieces from her master’s thesis “Designing in Color: Graphic Design Through a Xicana Lens” at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis. | Courtesy of Adriana Arriaga

“I realized I didn’t even know that story,” she said, a complicated but motivating realization.

“I thought to myself, ‘What I can do with graphic design is much more important than I initially thought.’ So I linked graphic design and activism, I started taking ethnic studies classes and design classes, trying to figure out how when I’m doing a project, I can get the message of [Chicano pride] what I’m learning now.”

Gabriela Ruiz on the roof of her current work studio in Mexico City |  Samanta Helou Hernandez

Today, 27-year-old Arriaga pursues an expanded version of that intention in her art. A self-proclaimed Xicana who goes by the name Adriana la artista, she creates digital pieces that can take the form of prints, posters, stickers, and even wheat paste murals.

“With each poster, I have a story to tell,” Arriaga said. “It will always be through an experience I’ve had in the past or my reactions to things happening now.”

She has created posters for community causes proclaiming “Protect the Women in the Fields” and “Honor the Hands that Nurture” in honor of agricultural workers; her “Not your daughter at home” t-shirt was a direct response to a spammy Instagram post from a man addressing her as such. In other plays, Arriaga portrays herself as naked, often juxtaposing pride in her sexuality with her religious upbringing, symbolizing the pressures she grew up with to be “a good Catholic girl”.

A digital graphic artwork depicting Adriana Arriaga as the Virgin of Guadalupe.  She wears large gold hoops and black fingernails.  The veil over her head is teal with yellow borders and stars.  A golden orange halo glows behind his head and a dark purple background.
“Bless You,” a depiction of Arriaga dressed as the Virgin of Guadalupe, featured at the “Heaven or Hell” art exhibit in collaboration with fellow Santa Barbara artist Baby Moet. | Courtesy of Adriana Arriaga

“Unfortunately, our religious environments put us [women] on a pedestal, about how we should behave and how we should act,” she said. “To rebel against that through sex, I do it for myself. And to show that we deserve respect despite everything.”

Throughout his graduate studies and professional career, Arriaga has defended his art against those who claim that digital art is not “real art”; in graduate school of design, she argued that Chicano art is both design and art, because its beauty also has a function. For her, “the purpose of every Chicano poster was to build community.”

Unfortunately, our religious environments put us [women] on a pedestal, on how we should behave and how we should act

Adriana Arriaga

“I’m kind of living my thesis, proving to people that when we make these posters, it connects us as Chicanos living in between, going back and forth,” she said. “[The art] maybe in the museum or on the street.”

Arriaga proved it last year when she and fellow Santa Barbara artist Claudia Borfiga did a large mural at the Paseo Nuevo mall. The bold and colorful piece reflects Borfiga’s inclination to represent the Earth’s natural elements and Arriaga’s inspiration found in his culture and local community.

“The oldest hand represents the transmission of knowledge…the butterfly is a design used to symbolize migration…the hummingbird is popular in Chicano imagery,” Arriaga said, and the kelp and arroyo toad are local creatures.

“And finally, the woman – it was important for me to have Mother Earth in her…she is a woman who, for me, was inspired by the indigenous women in my life who taught me so much about protection of the Earth.”

A digital graphic artwork of a dark skinned native woman crying with her hands over her face.  A white veil hangs over her head as she cries.  Behind her is a plain dark navy blue background.  At the foot of the room reads, "La Llorona" in white letters.
Adriana Arriaga’s ‘La Llorona’ print is inspired by the legend of La Llorona, which always ends with a weeping woman searching for her children near a body of water. But Arriaga’s interpretation was particularly inspired by a different iteration of the legend – an Indigenous woman mourning the loss of many Indigenous children who were murdered due to colonization. “This piece was inspired by a version of the story that impacted how I think about my Xicana identity and the work I do for the community,” Arriaga said in an Instagram post. | Courtesy of Adriana Arriaga

Especially during the pandemic, Arriaga has been inspired by the community’s efforts to support each other in big and small ways. She often uses her art to champion local causes and recently collaborated with a community collective that has grown organically in the city. The group is made up of artists, creators, teachers, activists and others along the Central Coast and even as far as New Jersey, supporting and connecting with opportunities and potential collaborators from around the world. project.

“We kind of enjoy the journey, figuring out what we need,” Arriaga said. “Artists…we can’t do things alone, we have to collaborate.”

Left to right: Aztlan Underground's DJ Bean, Lupe, Aztlan Underground's Yaotl, Jose Maldonado and Edgar Toledo at The Farce of July 1999 |  Courtesy of Edgar Toledo and Emily Martinez

Arriaga recently hosted an art exhibit called “Heaven or Hell,” with fellow Santa Barbara artist Baby Moet at local vegan restaurant Rascal’s. She showed two pieces meant to match the ‘paradise’ theme, one titled ‘Bless You’, a depiction of Arriaga dressed as the Virgin of Guadalupe wearing large gold hoop earrings and a cool manicure , and the other entitled “Death of a Conquistador”, which shows Arriaga holding a knife to the throat of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez, a piece inspired by Artemisia Gentileschi’s play “Judith slaying Holofernes”.

A digital artwork of Adriana Arriaga with a halo behind her head and holding a knife to the throat of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.  The background behind both is a solid red color.
“The Death of a Conquistador”, by Adriana Arriaga, was presented at the “Heaven or Hell” art exhibition in collaboration with another Santa Barbara artist, Baby Moet. | Courtesy of Adriana Arriaga

Together, the works symbolize Arriaga’s journey as an artist and as an individual: a return to self, a removal of imposed beliefs, and a reclaiming of cultural pride and traditions in the community.

For me, it is not even just a question of dissociating myself from colonial ideology, but of destroying it.

Adriana Arriaga

“The ideas that colonialism imposes on us, and the way it continues…it appears in different forms even today,” she said, “so in claiming my dignity and calling me Xicana, he is about looking at the past and trying to embrace what my our ancestors did and what we do now as a community, whether through our language, our food, our behaviors, what we read , our cultural practices. We’re really trying to save and share and teach, and by doing that, we begin to decolonize and reclaim our identity in history.”

“For me, it’s not even just about disassociating myself from colonial ideology, but about destroying it,” she continued.

“I am no longer confused as to who I am.”


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