Up-tempo electronic music plays as a rapid-fire montage unfolds on the screen, showing quick flashes of contorted naked bodies, covered in paint, camouflaged against a backdrop or disguised as some species of wild animal. Ru Paul interjects with, “MIND! BLOWN!” as host Rebecca Romijn introduces the premise: “Body painting is everywhere. From high fashion magazines to chart-topping music videos.” She goes on to explain that the grand prizewinner will win $100,000, but not before nine of the contestants are eliminated. “It’s time to wash off your canvas.” (Cut to a forlorn model scrubbing off her body paint in the middle of a cavernous room.)
All of this takes place in the first two minutes of Skin Wars, Season 1, Episode 1. The show capitalizes on an increasingly popular artistic trend known as body painting (also bodypainting), which is exactly what it sounds like. A nude or partially nude human body is used as the painter’s canvas. It many ways, the practice exists at the intersection between fashion, performance art, fine art, and cultural custom. The winner of Skin Wars’ first season was Natalie Fletcher, who says: “Body paint is the fashion of the future… I would not have been part of this show if it didn't portray skin painting as a fine art… In this show the models are the canvas. No other artist gets a canvas that walks and talks."
The judges of the show include Ru Paul, Robin Slonina, and Craig Tracy, described in the first episode as “the godfather of body painting.” The title is not without merit; he won first place in the 2005 World Bodypainting Festival, and the very next year he opened the world’s first art gallery “that deals exclusively in body painted images.” He uses airbrushing, paintbrushes, and even his fingers, but must finish the entire piece within one day — his longest project took thirteen hours. Then, the finished product is documented in photographs.
Tracy aims to highlight not “the natural beauty of the model but instead… the visual dance between both the painted image and the painted subject.” He prefers to work on bodies because of their complex three-dimensional curves — a stark contrast, he says, to “flat lifeless canvas.” Ultimately, he hopes to bring recognition to body painting as a highbrow contemporary art form, worthy of the critical reception afforded to more traditional mediums. “The sometimes-narrow mindedness of those considered the artistic academic elite would stifle and retard meaningful growth and advancement of otherwise deserving art and artists,” he explains. “I intend to help earn the respect that this art form ultimately deserves.”
He’s not wrong about that lack of respect. Art critics take issue with body painting for myriad reasons: it’s temporary and thus not valuable; it’s merely a subgenre of performance art; only amateurs peddle in this medium; it’s essentially just crude tattoo art. Of course, such criticisms ignore the rich history of body painting in many indigenous cultures. In Africa, naturally derived pigments have been used to decorate the body for centuries. Ethiopia in particular “used specific types of body painting to celebrate each stage of life, from childhood to old age,” attributing different meanings to each color and pattern. Likewise, in Oceania, body paint is part of a long tradition of cultural signification.
Several international festivals both honor this tradition and help champion the same mission as Tracy. The Rabarama Skin Art Festival seeks to “give an increasingly complete form to Skin Art, making it recognized by the public as part of contemporary culture and art.” The festival takes place annually in different parts of Italy, and it focuses on a new theme each year. (Past themes have included catharsis, rebirth, destiny and free will.) Similarly, artists from around the world compete at Kryolan’s World Bodypainting Festival in Austria. During this one week, artists descend onto Carinthia and transform the area into a temporary “Bodypaint City” with performances, installations, music, and more.
The types of body painting on display at these festivals and beyond are as diverse as the artists themselves. Practitioner Bella Volen enumerates the various subgenres of this medium: fine art, camouflage, installation, illustration, character and cartoon, UV, action, fashion, waterproof, special effects, and airbrush. As a fine art, she says, body painting “is similar to the haute couture in the fashion industry. It combines highest quality, smart concept, delicate color choice, taste and design knowledge.” Volen’s own contribution to the field includes a process known as “paintloon,” which combines latex balloons and body painting.
The progression of body painting from ancient custom to contemporary art form began to unfold in the 1960s as part of the Fluxus, Happenig, and Viennese Actionism movements. The underlying belief system of these campaigns held that the act of creating is more important than the finished product, and that the commercialization of art should be avoided. And yet, more contemporary iterations of body painting incorporate photography in order to elevate the ephemeral into the permanent; likewise, body painting is commodified in various applications.
Few examples of this are more well-known than Demi Moore’s Vanity Fair cover in the early 90s. In this revolutionary image, Moore was fully nude with a suit painted onto her skin. Joanne Gair was the creative force behind the image. She’s since gone on to paint bikinis on Sports Illustrated models in yearly installments. Gair mimics real fabric in her body painting — the texture of knitting (on model Haily Clauson, for instance), the intricate patterns, and the shadows and highlights. The effect is such that the viewer must do a double-take, asking at each new image: “Is it textiles or is it paint?” These swimsuits “exemplify Gair’s close attention to detail and sense of realism that have made her the master of the art of illusion.”
But Gair is far from the only body painter who engineers illusion in her living canvases. Emma Hack is also known for her camouflaged body paintings, especially her Wallpaper series, in which she painted models until they blended in with the Florence Broadhurt’s renowned wallpaper designs. Likewise, Liu Bolin is a Chinese artist who disguises himself with body paint in order to convey various political messages. His ability to disappear under layers of paint serves as a “[metaphor] for the feeling of anonymity and ostracism he encounters as a contemporary artist in China.” Still, he says: “Disappearing is not the main point of my work… It's just the method I use to pass on a message. It's my way to convey all the anxiety I feel for human beings.” In the process, he engages in “a silent protest… against the state.”
Of course, body painting isn’t always about camouflage and political statements. Sometimes, it’s used as a supplement to or even a replacement for traditional fashion designs. An Atlantic City fashion show in October of last year captured the cohesive marriage between these two worlds. The show featured nearly a dozen designers, all working together with Heather Deegan Hires to create body painting that accentuated the fashion choices. Hires didn’t plan her paintings in advance, preferring rather to find inspiration in the moment in order to “add another flare and help make these designs come to life.” Tonya Wright, the show’s organizer, sought to merge diverse artists and their art forms through the event: “All of these designers and artists bring something different to the table.”
Of course, there are some decidedly unrefined examples of body painting to be found. Sarah Reilly and Maria Luciotti filmed a social experiment in which they went to the gym wearing nothing but painted-on fitness clothes. Some women are even opting to have their wedding dresses painted on their skin, instead of searching through the aisles of David’s Bridal. Then again, even Stella McCartney has a GAP line, and for every Picasso there’s a Painting & Pinot class teaching dilettantes how to depict a sunset. So perhaps this means that body painting is finally finding its place in the world of contemporary art. Critics, take notice: Can’t lowbrow only be identified if it exists in contrast to something more cultivated?