Be the (Folk) Artist: Mexican Tin Art

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steampunk tin 1
Give the beautiful, simple style of Mexican tin art a steampunk look. Image: Lisa Kay Tate

Embossed metalwork can be found in art forms all over the world, and Mexican tin art, referred to as hojalata or lamina, has been a part various regions of since the 1500s.

tin examples
Examples of Mexican tin art can be found all over Pinterest and Tumblr for inspiration, like these pictured. The cross in the upper right has several examples of milagro pieces.

Tin art, such as Oaxacan tin art, is popular with folk artists because it can achieve a similar appearance to more metals like gold or silver, but it is more accessible and less expensive.

Tin has been used for practical items such as plates or cups, but also for decorative items like lanterns, wall art, and nichos (small boxes or shelves often featuring religious items). In hojalata, or a similar embossing form of art, “rebujo,” tin can be shaped through pressing or pounding tin over raised shapes, or by creating the contours and designs by hand.

Many of the hojalata art examples seen in curio and souvenir stores in Mexico are often painted with bright colors, and they are sometimes embellished with tiles, bottle caps, marbles, or other small items.

One item sometimes created from tin is the “milagro,” a small religious charm used for prayers and healing purposes. Hearts are common milagro shapes, as well as other body parts (such as legs are hands) or animals. These are used today not just for religious purposes, but by artists as attractive additions to jewelry, votives, mirrors, and other décor.

Tin has been called “the poor man’s silver,” but you can’t put a price the value of a creative mind and heart.

tin art 1
Image: Lisa Kay Tate

The Project: Steampunk Foil Hearts

This project will combine the tin art of Mexico with steampunk designs.

One of the most wonderful things in any type of folk art is seeing inexpensive, everyday items become works of fun art; hojalata and similar metal art sometimes makes use of items like aluminum cans or tin pie pans.

We’ll use something even easier to come by: aluminum foil. Two reasons for using foil is it is safest for use for all ages compared to the sharp edges of the cut-out surface of aluminum cans, and it’s cheaper than aluminum sheets purchased from craft and hobby stores.

tinfolding
Folding your tin.

The downside of using foil is it can also be easily torn or ripped when working, so I recommend folding it in half to create two layers. This will make it a little stronger. If you’re having trouble avoiding ripping, or keeping your shape in order, use a foil pie tin instead.

Fold or cut the foil into a small square about 6″ x 6″ to start. To make the heart shape, fold the foil as you would a paper Valentine, and use a toothpick, ballpoint pen, or bamboo skewer to draw your shape. Cut it about a fourth an inch from the outline. Once it is cut out, fold the edges back for a smoother edge.

Create the design by finding some familiar steampunk shapes including clock faces, gears, industrial items like nuts and washers, or even steampunk themed charms or jewelry.

Place the foil on top of the item and gently smooth it over the top to create the embossed, raised imprint of the design or designs. Be careful not to smash or flatten these shapes if using one or more items on any given design. Also, if you use a design too raised, the foil may tear. Next, add some details by drawing on the foil with the toothpick or pen, Don’t try to go too crazy with the design; some tin work is best kept simple.

tinpressing
Gears, charms, and keys can make some great “embossed” shapes.

Once the design is complete add some color with acrylic paint or felt tip markers. Traditional Mexican tin art takes advantage of bright colors, but these can also look good keeping with more muted metal tones like copper or gold for a steampunk feel.

tincolor
Adding color to tin art helps the shapes stand out. Images: Lisa Tate

If you want more depth, sew a small gear or nut on the piece with beading wire, and tape over the loose ends on the back with a small piece of duct tape. Remember, once more, the foil could tear, so be careful not to pull too tightly.

Larger designs can be used as wall art, or as lightly adhered to jar or bottle for a votive design, and small designs can create milagro style charms.

These can even make nice steampunk heart ornaments or Valentines in the style of one of literature’s most famous pieces of metal work: the Tin Man. They can even be placed on cards accompanied by an appropriate Wizard of Oz  quote for tin work:

Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.”

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Use tin art to make wall art or embellish jars, bottles, or other smooth surfaces.

 This summer’s Be the Artist series celebrates artists and folk art styles from around the world.