There are times when you come across someone's work and, all of a sudden, you feel seen, visible, present in a world that normally denies you exist or forces you into subjugated categorizations. This is how I felt when I came across Mario Elías Jaroud's meticulously researched, wonderfully curated, and beautifully reenacted self-portraits that resonate with thousands of admirers. Hijacking the cis white male's enthronement within the eon's of art history's canon, Mario Elías Jaroud concentrates on "queering the male gaze" and celebrating the LGBTQIA+ people of the past through powerful representations of famous photographs, paintings, and storytelling.
Like many artists, it's not only Mario's pieces that are stunning, it's the empowerment that the works give to the audience. In this interview with the prodigious creator, Mario talks about transformative tattoo experiences, the meaning behind the work, and how to represent strength and visibility.
First off, can you tell us a bit about yourself like your background, what you love to do and why you were drawn to it?
I am a gender non-conforming American artist of Cuban and Syrian descent. I originally studied Art History and Archaeology but got sucked into the world of fashion photography. Research and writing are amazing, but I talk too damn much to be stuck alone with texts and history all day.
I’d love if you could talk a bit about your tattoos, the meaning behind them if any, who did them and why you were attracted to getting tattoos as well? Were you worried about any stigma and was it a transformative experience for you?
Growing up in a very traditional Cuban Catholic home, tattoos were definitely a no-no. But luckily I was the Gay rule breaker early on, so I did not feel much pressure to adhere to that guideline either. I was never worried about the stigma of having to explain it to my family anyways; I'm a very no-nonsense person, and my family knows that. I was independent early on, and they respected my work ethic and passion far more than any disapproval for what I do to my body could negate. I will say that getting tattoos definitely made me more confident and gave me even more gumption though. It was an extremely transformative process for me. I felt like the tattoos could be a bit of a prelude, a silent form of expression that could always come before any words were exchanged. A way to express myself outwardly in a bold way. As a Queer individual growing up in a world of machismo, I spent a lot of my youth guarding who I really was, how I really felt, or even completely creating characters that I felt better suited situations as a means of self-preservation. A reality any marginalized individual is familiar with. Being out and proud in my adult life, tattoos were a way for me to live my life my way, loudly even without saying a word. All of my tattoos are references to literature, art history or Queer identity. I like to design all of the pieces I get done but like the tattoo artist to add their style to them as well.
My tattoo artist from my Chicago days is Casey Sass (now in Austin, Texas), and Gauge at Bulldog Tattoo in San Francisco. Art is nothing without conversation or collaboration. My first tattoo is a block of black text with no spacing that wraps around my forearm, meeting at two clock faces, and anchored by perpendicular handwriting in red. The main text is an excerpt from Farewell to the Sea by Reinaldo Arenas, the clocks reference "Perfect Lovers" by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and the red handwriting is the first line from the first poem I had published. A collection of Queer Cuban artists, to remind me to keep true to myself, my culture and my artistic aspirations. I wanted all of the tattoos to sort of resemble textbook illustrations or crude illuminated manuscripts. I wanted there to be a meaning behind each piece, even if I never tell anyone. Some of the pieces are just meant to mark a time in my life, and that isn't anything that needs to be shared. That's one of my favorite parts of this art form. It is something that anyone can see, but definitely not something that is always immediately easy to understand.
What has your experience been like in tattoo studios or the tattoo community at large? How do you choose artists or studios that you know will facilitate a good experience?
My experience in tattoo studios and with the artists has been nothing but beautiful. It's an extremely intimate process getting a tattoo. You have another human permanently scarring you with a one of a kind piece of art. It's a surreal and otherworldly experience, and because of that, I have always done my research and made sure the people doing the tattoos are people that I can connect with and that I feel good about the location, interaction, etc. There are so many options for artists and shops, why not take a minute and find the perfect fit?
Your photography focuses on bringing the stories of women and LGBTQIA people in art history to life. Why did you feel these were important stories to tell? What connections to the past do you think are important for our futures? Who are your particular art history heroes?
There have been many times in my life when I have been embarrassed about my identity. Being called Osama after proudly telling the class about my Syrian heritage. Being teased at school for always smelling like arroz con frijoles negros, a Cuban staple. Being forced to play with the girls at gym class, so the other boys wouldn’t beat me up. These were such small blips in my life. Small moments that were so significant to how I viewed and treated myself as an adult. And this experience is unfortunately very common within the LGBTQIA+ Community. Our identities are so very complex; they are not just the labels placed on us at birth or by others throughout our lives; they are not even the labels we have placed on ourselves. They are the product of innumerable beautiful factors. But many of us grow up feeling so alone and isolated. There was no visibility for people we could identify within the ways we felt set us apart.
There were so many stories I encountered in my art historical research and so many vignettes that I connected with in a way that I never had growing up. They were stories of people like me, and I wanted to explore them with people I believed would find joy or hope in them as well. There are countless stories of powerful Women and Queer individuals throughout history that are homogenized into the straight-cis male “normal” storyline (making the VERY gay Michelangelo asexual or chaste, for example), silencing and stripping us of these examples of successful Feminine and Queer icons, and the power of that visibility that goes hand in hand with them. By putting myself, a hairy effeminate minority, into works of the art historical canon in the place of the objectified, I am taking away the power of the male gaze and subverting it, forcing myself into a conversation historically dominated by straight white men for centuries. I just love Art History so much, but I love being Queer and Brown and Sassy even more, so this series has been beyond words for me. I get to talk to people from around the world about what makes us beautiful, and it has changed my life.
I notice that sometimes you actually Photoshop your tattoos out of an image...how do you go about creating the set/costumes/props for a piece, and when do you feel like tattoos are or are not part of the story?
All of the pieces I create from scratch. I sew most of the garments and paint the backgrounds if needed. I do all hair and makeup as well if there is any, and I design the lighting and do all of the shooting and editing as well. I think it's important to keep these as true self-portraits in order to maintain full control over the outcome. I also just take pride in everything I do, and I really love taking the time to create every little detail. I haven't photoshopped my tattoos in any of the images, and I always wear my wedding ring, because I really want it to be me in each piece, as I am, back hair and stretch marks, unibrow and all. I did photoshop my tattoos out in one image, "Self-Portrait as La Pieta, by Michelangelo." I did this because it was my first self-portrait as a marble statue, and I was not sure how to capture them in a way that would not detract from the illusion of being marble. I did later do another Michelangelo piece, David, and kept my tattoos in. I'm constantly learning, so that is just a mark of that fact. haha.
Do you think of tattoos as a part of art history?
Tattooing is not only a visual art in itself, it's a documentation of culture. I'm gonna put my Art Historian beret on really quick...
Essentially it's a form of scarification, which has been present in many cultures worldwide for centuries. The Art of body modification by way of tattoo has had the power not only to be a component of a culture, but it has, over time, created a culture all its own. That's mind-blowing.
The definition of Art, per Oxford, is any "expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form [...] producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power." The fact that Tattoos have been disregarded by the mainstream art world is purely out of ignorance of fringe culture. This is the same problem we run into studying Queer theory/culture in Art History.
History is written by straight-laced old white guys. What they don't understand they discard or rationalize to fit their narrative. That's such a pathetic way of viewing the world, not to mention extremely detrimental to us growing and understanding each other as humans.
Beyond creating art, what are you passionate about and love? What do you wish you had more time for?
Apart from Art and Art History, I am completely in love with languages. Learning a new language opens up entire worlds that had previously been unreachable to me. Humans are so beautiful, we create so much beauty. The only real way to fully explore that, for me, is through communicating with people, listening to the music, reading the literature, etc. I remember thinking as a kid that if I could have any superpower, it would be to understand every language on earth, and now I can experience the world through English, Spanish, Arabic, French, and ASL. I made myself into my own idea of a superhero, and I am so proud of that.
Do you have any projects, collabs, travel plans, etc. planned for 2020 that you’d like to share?
I am currently finishing my second photography book/first Art Historical Essay book! "Queering the Male Gaze" has over 50 self-portraits and 5 essays that tell the stories of Women and Queer Individuals throughout Art History, and I also explain why I think Picasso was an asshole and talk about some of my favorite feminine Bad Asses of all time. The last couple of years have been a whirlwind creating this series and discussing it with like-minded (and not-so-like-minded) people, and this book is the culmination of all of that for me. I also have my charity project "The KindaSuper Project," that brings free photo and video resources to individuals and non-profit organizations with need. More information and a form to request services can be found at Kinda Super Project.