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Mexican Papel Picado Banners
(Hand cut out paper and plastic banners from Mexico)
Mexican Papel Picado
(Hand cut out paper banners)
click on above photo to enlarge/see detail
Traditionally crafted of tissue paper (and still preferred by villagers), today plastic and mylar are also used. These banners are used as temporary decoration for fiestas, christenings, birthdays, holidays, weddings, altars and special occasions. Visit our gallery and ask to see our ever-changing selection of sizes, styles and materials. We have Day of the Dead (dia de los Muertos), Birthday, Wedding, Valentines Day, Floral and Garden, Frida Kahlo, Virgin de Guadalupe, Heart and Valentines day papel picados and many others! We can also commission custom banners (minimum of 50 sets) - contact us for more information!
Prices vary from under $5.00 to over $20 per strand, depending on whether paper or plastic, size and especially detail. For example, two different sets (usually 10 flags per set) of medium flags may sell for $8.00 and $12 - the $8.00 set is simpler while the more expensive set has lots more cutouts and complexity*. Please note those prices are just an example, actual prices varies depending on exchange rates, shipping costs and other factors. Visit or call our gallery for our current selection.
Many papel picado are made especially for the Mexican festivals of the Days of the Dead (dia de los Muertos) and include skeletal figures engaged in the everyday activities of the living. Other popular designs include the Virgin of Guadalupe and Christmas nativity scenes, floral and garden motifs as well as love, birthdays, anniversary and weddings. Individual papel picado banners are strung together to create festive, colorful decorations for celebrations.
Many different sizes, colors and shapes are created. Colors schemes selected for papel picado are frequently linked with specific festivities. Red or white for Valentines Day, White for Weddings, Sky blue or pink and white are commonly chosen for celebrations in honor of the Virgin Mary, yellow and white for patron saints. Vibrant pink, orange and purple are the key tones employed for ofrendas (offerings) associated with the Day of the Dead. Shades of purple are also widely used at Easter. The colors of the Mexican flag--red, white and green--are set aside for venerating the nation's patroness, La Virgen de Guadalupe, as well as for commemorating Independence Day, September 16. Rainbow hues are appropriate for Christmas and non-religious festivities.
To make papel picado, a paper patron (pattern) is first drawn as a guide. The pattern is laid on top of fifty layers of tissue paper that are placed on top of a lead sheet. Antonio then cuts this pattern out using a hammer and different sizes of chisels. San Salvador Huixcolotla, Puebla, is the village most noted in Mexico for the art of paper- cutting both for local festivals and marketing in Mexico City and abroad. Paper cutting is a family tradition, passed down from generation to generation.
Paper cutting has been a folk art around the world ever since paper was invented in 105 A.D. by Ts'ai Lun, an official in the court of Ho Ti, emperor of Cathay, China. The humble nature of its origins and the anonymity of its practice has caused paper cutting to be ignored as an art form, though artists, artisans, and collectors are becomingly increasingly aware of this valuable folk heritage. Worldwide traditions include German scherenschnitte, Polish wycinanki, Chinese hua yang, Japanese kirigami or mon-kiri, French silhouettes (named after Etienne de Silhouette, Controleur-General of France in 1757), and Matisse's painted paper cutouts.
Experienced Mexico travelers recognize a sure sign that a local fiesta is in progress whenever they spy a churchyard or stretch of roadway bedecked with lines of bright tissue paper cut-outs. Papel picado-- an enchanting Mexican popular art form with roots in the country's ancient cultures--lends a festive air for many types of celebrations.
In its most elementary form, papel picado is fashioned much as north-of-the-border school children make paper snowflakes. Rectangles of tissue paper are folded and snipped with scissors to create geometric patterns. These are glued side by side on a long piece of string measured to needed length. This basic process, familiar to Mexican people of all ages, is used to create quick and economical decorations that may be hung outside their homes for religious and civic festivities or used to brighten an interior room or patio for birthdays and other family celebrations.
Skilled craftsmen use awls, chisels and special cutting blades to render more intricate designs. Working over a basic pattern, they cut through as many as 50 sheets of tissue paper at a time. The design, often laid out over a delicate window pane background, may include figures such as flowers, foliage, birds, angels, crosses, skeletons and historic figures, as well as words or phrases associated with specific holidays. Borders may be straight, scalloped, zig-zagged or fringed. Each design is a unique and complex work of art requiring a keen ability to envision the use of negative space.
The use of paper as an accouterment of religious festivities can be traced back to pre-Hispanic Mexico. The Aztecs used the bark of mulberry and wild fig trees to make a rough paper called amatl. This was employed in numerous rituals to make flags and banners to decorate temples, streets, homes and fields. Paper banners splashed with liquid rubber were common adornments for rituals associated with the rain gods.
According to the Aztec civil calendar, the solar year began during the dry season--probably at the Spring equinox--with the month called Atlcahualo, meaning "want of water." Observances aimed at garnering the favor of Chalchiuhtlicue and Tlaloc, the chief rain gods, included displaying rows of rubber-spotted Banners draped over wooden poles outside the temple. Strips of paper--representing the seasonal appearance of new foliage--were hung in the courtyards of individual homes.
The conclusion of the harvest feast Xocol Huetzi was celebrated with a contest in which youngsters scrambled up a tall pole to retrieve the insignia of the fire god Xiutecuhtli and an effigy modeled from amaranth seed. Huge amatl banners waved from the top of the pole.
The birth of war god Huitzilopochtli, a major figure in the Aztec pantheon, was commemorated in conjunction with the winter solstice, a celebration called Panquetzaliztli -- "the raising of the banners." Participants carrying marigolds and amatl banners performed ritual dances in front of the Templo Mayor. Paper flags were put up by the score to festoon fruit trees and people's homes.
After the Spanish Conquest papel de china (tissue paper) was introduced and became the material of choice for Christian holiday decorations. Because tissue paper's delicate consistency tends to make it ephemeral in nature, cut-outs made from plastic are fast gaining favor nowadays. Happily, the charming traditional designs that still prevail help compensate for what the sturdier, more modern material lacks in aesthetic value.
Papermaking is an ancient craft in Mexico. In pre-Columbian times deerskin, tree bark, and agave or maguey fibers were fashioned into forms of paper used for painting codices, or pictorial manuscripts, for religious or historical purposes. The library has examples of these codices dating from the post-Conquest period.
Some of these papermaking skills have survived today and are to be seen in popular art as well as in healing rituals. Paper called amate from the bark of mulberry and fig trees is made in the area where the states of Puebla, Hidalgo, and Veracruz meet, most notably in the town of San Pablito, Puebla. The mulberry produces a whitish paper, while the paper from the fig is dark. Men of the village peel the bark from the trees, but the women actually make the paper. The bark is washed, boiled in a large pot for several hours with ashes or lime, then rinsed and laid in lines on a wooden board. The fibers are next beaten with a stone until they fuse together into paper and are left to dry in the sun. The high demand for amate paper has resulted in the over-stripping of trees and even the poaching of bark.
Much of the amate paper goes to villages in the state of Guerrero where artisans who once decorated pottery, now paint imaginative scenes of everyday life, fanciful birds, animals, and flowers on this special paper. Such paintings of varying quality are produced in abundance for the tourist trade. Some works are signed, and occasionally a gifted artist may gain considerable recognition for his work.
In San Pablito amate paper is used by shamans for making cutouts of spirit beings associated with the sky, the earth, the underworld, and water for curing and fertility ceremonies. The shaman will bring them to life by breathing unto their mouths, holding them in the smoke of incense, or sprinkling them with alcohol. A vast number of seed spirits of fruits and vegetables are used to encourage good crops. These cutout figures in dark and light shades of amate are sometimes mounted and sold to tourists and collectors or even made into accordion-type books that explain the mystical ceremonies. Besides amate paper, ordinary tissue paper-cutouts of the spirits are also employed in rituals and books and provide an accent of color.
Making Simple Papel Picado
Fold a rectangular piece of paper in half. In pencil, sketch one half of a design on one of the folded halves. Rulers may be used to divide the paper into grids or sections. Objects or designs must touch and connect to other areas of the paper as they form the positive shapes on the paper. Negative areas to be cut away may be shaded in pencil to aid in cutting.
Use scissors or a craft knife to carefully cut away negative areas of the design (cut over cardboard if using craft knives). Open slowly, flatten, and glue to a background paper. To create more complex designs, fold the paper more than once. Try using different kinds of paper: butcher paper, fadeless colored paper, origami paper, and colored tissue paper.
Whatever the occasion, papel picado invariably transmits the mirthful message: °Viva la Fiesta! °Viva Mexico! Portions of this article were written by by Dale Hoyt Palfrey and we reproduce it here with our thanks © 1999.
Zanzibar Tribal Art Gallery
1731 L Street Sacramento CA 95811