Papel picado is a popular Mexican art form that is widely displayed during the Day of the Dead to decorate altars that honor the deceased. You can see an example on the right. "Papel picado" is the Spanish phrase for “perforated paper”, referring to the detailed designs that are traditionally hand-cut onto brightly-colored tissue paper.
This type of perforated paper shows up on many different occasions, such as weddings, Easter and Christmas, in addition to Day of the Dead. They are hung as decorations, similar to the way streamers are popular party decorations in the US. However, papel picado differs from streamers in that they consist of larger, single sheets of tissue paper containing detailed, decorative imagery that are strung together to form a chain.
The photo below shows an example of papel picado adorning the front of a Day of the Dead altar. This altar was constructed at the library / museum of San Andres Mixquic in Mexico City.
The imagery on the cut tissue paper depends on the celebration. For Dia de los Muertos, papel picado patterns feature humorous images of skulls and skeletons, and is most often cut from purple, orange or pink paper.
Common Day of the Dead papel picado imagery includes:
- smiling sugar skulls
- dancing skeletons
- drinking and/or feasting skeletons
- skeletons getting married
- skeletons on horseback, in a car, riding a bicycle, or on a train
- skeletons singing and playing instruments
The images on papel picado are always humorous and fun — never scary, sad or macabre. Day of the Dead is a celebration, a reunion with the dead, so the imagery is festive as well. This makes papel picado extremely popular with tourists.
Like most Dia de los Muertos art forms, papel picado is ephemeral. The delicacy of the tissue paper means that the decorations won’t last long at all — they are meant to be enjoyed until they fall apart or until it's time to take them down. This non-attachment to longevity is in line with many other Day of the Dead art forms that are only temporary, such as sugar skulls which are meant to be eaten, and skeleton paintings on store windows that are washed off after the holiday is over.
When and how did papel picado originate?
The modern craft of Mexican papercutting can be traced back to a similar practice of the Aztecs, the civilization that thrived in Mexico before the Spanish invasion. The Aztecs cut detailed designs into paper made from the bark of trees, such as mulberry and fig. They used these designs, called amatl, as decorations during various festivals. Their gods and goddesses were commonly depicted on amatl.
After the Spanish invasion in 1519, Spanish paper-cutting traditions and tools were introduced into Mexico. And then as trade increased between China and the Americas, they started using delicate Chinese tissue paper for paper picado.
Over the years, papel picado has evolved to what it is today. Several decades ago, papel picado designs were relatively simple, but as they started gaining in popularity (especially amongst the tourist market), they have grown more and more complex.
Making Papel Picado
Cutting papel picado was once a specialty of Mexican artisans who would laboriously hand-cut up to 50 sheets at one time using a special chisel, such as the tools pictured on the right. Huixcolotla, a village in San Salvador, Mexico, was especially renowned for exquisite paper cutting. These days, while there are still Mexican artisans who specialize in papel picado, there are also machine-made versions available for purchase. Because of this, handmade papel picado is in danger of becoming a dying art form. Luckily there are a few Mexican artists who are actively seeking to revitalize this special art form.
Noteworthy Papel Picado Artists
Marcelino Bautista Sifuentes was born in Mexico and raised in Los Angeles, CA. He first made papel picado with his granddaughter after attending a Dia de los Muertos event in California. Marcelino seeks to revitalize the dying artform of handmade papel picado by leading demos and workshops about cutting papel picado. As a historian of ethnic studies, Marcelino's goal is to preserve and promote both the art form and the culture from whence it comes.
Herminia Albarran Romero was born in Mexico and now lives in California. She learned the art of paper-cutting from her family, in addition to other traditional arts and crafts of Mexico. In California she has created Day of the Dead altars featuring her handmade papel picado and paper marigolds for a variety of institutions who commissioned her for her expertise, including the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts and the Oakland Museum of California. Herminia has also led workshops around the Bay Area to help keep the art of papel picado alive. In 2005 she received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award.
Learn about other forms of Dia de los Muertos art.
Return to the main Day of the Dead page.