For some people their introduction to “shamanism” is during a spring break trip gone bad that leaves them barfing into a plastic bucket; or maybe it’s a guest perk at a fancy South American resort. It should come as no surprise that these are far from accurate depictions of what shamanism really is: it’s about reaching an altered state of being (momentarily, through ritual) that allows you to share your newfound “transcendental energies” to other people, to the world at large, or into your graphic design practice. 

Okay, the graphic design part is a new addition, but one that’s nevertheless at the heart of Jonathan Castro’s work as well as his upcoming talk at the Us By Night conference in Antwerp, Belgium, where he promises to expand on how his approach to design is rooted in a new kind of shamanism, something he’s described as “digital shamanism” as well as syncretism, a mix of different cultures, traditions, and ideas. His personal syncretistic blend is is a result of the fascinating dialogue he’s started between the visual objects created by pre-colonial Peruvians and his more contemporary sources of inspiration, namely music culture and graphic design from the 1990s.

How anything this disparate could come together into a comprehensible body of work not only demonstrates Castro’s skills as a designer, but also to his curiosity around how things work on a much deeper level. It also stems from his upbringing in Lima, the capital of Peru, a dense “mix of people from all over the country: the jungle, the highlands, the villages,” says Castro. “There’s a lot of colors, textures, smells, sounds, traffic, architecture—weird architecture, bad architecture—just a lot of people everywhere.” 

That cultural mixtape of a city is one of the main reasons he was never able to square the Western European design tradition taught in school with his everyday experience in Lima. “I couldn’t connect minimal design with the lifestyle in Peru or my life as a teenager. I was full of energy and into all this underground, expressive and aggressively experimental music,” he says. “I really appreciate Swiss design, but it was impossible to see myself in it. I knew there had to be something else.” 

At this point it had only been a few years since Castro had discovered the existence of graphic design. He had spent some time in high school making album art and band posters, but he didn’t really know what he was doing, only that it felt right—as though he could finally vocalise what he was feeling in a more productive way, one that didn’t involve acting out and getting written up for bad behavior. Then one day he found himself in the library reading a magazine article about something called graphic design. It presented a basic description of the purpose and formal properties of design, but for Castro it was a true a-ha moment. From then on, his fate was sealed. “When I read that article, I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I was waiting for that moment my whole life. I finally understood what I wanted to do.” 

“They thought graphic design was for hippies. They thought I was going to go off, smoke a lot of weed, and never make any money.”

He ran home to tell his parents that he had discovered what his purpose in life—unfortunately for them it didn’t involve following in their footsteps and getting a job at a bank. “They thought graphic design was for hippies. They thought I was going to go off, smoke a lot of weed, and never make any money.” So he agreed to study business administration and economics, but dropped out after the first year. 

Determined to study design, even if he had to pay for school himself, he took a slight detour by way of Las Vegas, where he lived with an uncle who managed a Red Lobster restaurant and got him a job as a dishwasher. This entire article could be about his experience washing dishes for 10 months in order to save for design school, but that’s a story for another time and another website. But those months away not only allowed him to earn enough for a year of tuition, but it gave him the distance he needed in order to reflect on his identity as Peruvian; he realized how much he loved his culture, how connected he felt to its ancient traditions, and how much he had taken it for granted.

But design school in Peru wasn’t the bastion of creativity he was yearning for. He describes the focus on commercial work and the urgency to learn various software programs instead of critical or conceptual thinking: it was all practice, no theory, and he left after two years to pursue an education of his own making. 

He found work at local studios as he recognized that he needed to learn about the nature of professional design, how the business side of things operates, how a design team functions, how to work with clients. At the same time, he was reading books about ’90s design as well as Peru’s pre-Colombian (that is to say, its pre-colonization) history, too. If discovering graphic design in a magazine article was Castro’s first major revelation, this was the second. “It was the school I never had,” he says of those years. 

A keen observer, he drew parallels between ancient artifacts, traditional costumes, weavings, and rituals, and more contemporary graphic design. Castro was especially drawn to the visual language of the Incas. “They were drawing and creating all these new symbols, not because they thought it was art, but because they were searching for a way to express their life—and especially their spirituality—at that moment in time. Those symbols feel emotional, full of meaningful, and are really pure.”

“Graphic design has an energy that produces emotions and feelings in the person looking at it or experiencing it.”

It wasn’t long before he dove deeper into the people who made those symbols and objects. His research led him to A Wild Thing, a book by Hilde Bouchez who expands on why some objects have an undeniable magnetism while others just have no soul. He began to understand how the Incas translated the energy they drew from their connection with the natural world into their symbology and object-making, and Castro became driven to bring that same understanding of our relationship with the natural world into his own work. “Graphic design also has an energy that produces emotions and feelings in the person looking at it or experiencing it.”

by Jonathan Castro

Westerners often resort to talking about energy in air quotes, but Castro is not a crystal-gazing, sage-burning, drum-beating quack. For him, it’s simply a matter of logic. “I don’t believe in God and I’m not a spiritual person at all,” he says. “But what I’ve always believed is that there’s a big energy, bigger than us. When I started to read about the spiritual power of the Incas, or about cosmology or shamanism, it’s not about being religious, it’s about believing, really just acknowledging the energy of the things around us: nature, animals, plants, rain or the sun. It’s more logical to believe in these things because you can see it, and you can touch it, and you can experience it.”

If we agree that there’s an exchange of energy between people and the world around them, and that certain spaces or objects can make us feel certain ways (i.e. bright, airy spaces make us feel open and positive, while dark, cluttered spaces may have the opposite effect), Castro wants to take that one step further by pushing the transformative power of visual images. He’s not calling himself a shaman, of course. “It’s not like you’d see my poster and go, Ah I’m a different person. I’m transformed! But maybe it speaks to you in a deeper way, or maybe it makes you feel uncomfortable—or maybe it’s comforting.” And what designer wouldn’t want the power to turn a poster into more than just information on paper, but an object that can transmit real emotion. 

by Jonathan Castro