Painted woodcarving is an art form created in three pueblos surrounding Oaxaca City: San Antonino Arrazola, San Martín Tilcajete, and La Unión Tejalapam. Unlike weaving and many types of ceramics, woodcarving is a relatively new art form in Oaxaca. Unpainted religious masks and small toys for children have long been an important part of the culture. However, painted animal, human and fantasy figures for purely decorative purposes, introduced in the 1950s, are a far later development that gained recognition and popularity only in the 1980s in response to soaring demand by American folk art dealers.
Many people incorrectly refer to this entire class of art as “alebrijes,” or monsters. While some artists do create monsters, many pieces treat subjects of natural beauty (such as animals or cacti), religious beliefs, or fantasy material grounded in myths or cultural traditions (for instance, “nahuales” – combined human and animal figures – that are also captured in many types of ceramics).