Bodypainting; a brief history

"It's appeal is primitive. It's applications unlimited. The world of bodypainting awaits."

From the earliest of our anthropological origins, humans have taken to utilizing the resources around them for the purpose of decoration. Self decoration on human skin seems to go with the territory of simply being human.

Every tribe, every society, every culture across history has found this form of self-expression necessary and often useful. The Surma tribes of Ethiopia who use pigments near the rivers to decorate their skin, the Maori of New Zealand whose face tattoos served as both decoration and identification, the aboriginals of Australia, in Asia, Russia and South America, humans decorate the body for ritual, for artistic expression, as status, and as an identifier.

Let's look at a few of these bodypainters, and the way they expressed stories on skin.

The Surma tribes of Ethiopia use clay by the river to paint their skin, often as simple decorations without any ritual significance. They often use botanicals to enhance their designs, and as stamps to create patterns of circles. The males paint themselves during the yearly stick fights, these designs do having ritual significance.

Ancient egyptians used lead carbonite to decorate skin. Lip, cheek, nail, and eye art were the norm. they were also known for painting newborns in white clay as protection.

The Aborgines of Australia use lines and circles to identify family, tribe and even ancestral land. It is spiritual in nature and deeply important to them. The motifs and designs are passed down and honored rather than being created anew.

In the Amazon Basin, many tribes are known for decorating their skin. Further south in Brazil, the Kyopo tribe use colorful beads and feathers, in addition to face and bodypainting in order to connect to the spirits in everything. Hence the use of animal or insect-like markings, what they believe their ancestors learned from in order to create community and culture.

Hindu and Sikh ritual celebrations have long involved body art in the form of henna. The henna plant is ground into a paste and mixed with oils or other botanicals to adjust color. Designs placed on skin prior to an important ritual celebrate fertility, prosperity, love, good luck, or protection. The earliest written reference to Henna/Mehndi was found on a table in what is now Syria, dating back to 2100 BC.

European orthodox Christians began decrying the use of bodypainting as pagan, and banned it in 1,000 CE

It did not return to fashion in european cultures until around the 1960's when it became a form of social activism and artistic expression, though there are still several tribes in existence today that never lost this ancient and spiritual form of décor in their culture.

Tribal cultures have always used materials that were readily accessible in their regions for the purpose of bodypainting. Red Ochre is created with iron oxides (magnetite and hematite), yellow ochre (from Limonite), charcoal from burned wood, ashes, clay, talc, copper, berries, roots and other pigments from nature made the first and longest used bodypaints thus far.

As we can see with even minimal research, is that human beings love to use a variety of mediums and tools to express things that are important to them. From culture and ritual, to identity and self-expression, bodypainting has long been enjoyable, meaningful and part of our lineage.

In the modern era of bodypainting, we are enjoying a resurgence of acceptance with this art form. Multiple competitions, exhibitions, classes, and gatherings around the world can be found in modern times. The most prestigious of these events is the World Bodypainting Festival currently being held yearly in Seeboden Austria.

You can expect to find artists from around the world represented there. Multiple categories of competition exist over several days. Education from a variety of world-renowned artists is also an important part of the festival.

Categories for competition include; Brush and Sponge, Special Effects, Face Painting, UV/Night, Installation, Airbrush, and more.

Each day presents different themes for artists to interpret as they create these transient works of original art. Judges are brought in from all over the world as well; individuals who represent the top of their respective industries.

Over 50 countries are represented by the various competitors, and people travel far to attend this spectacular event.

The World Bodypainting Festival, as well as the governing body, The World Bodypainting Association were the creation of Alex Barendregt. He and his wife Anna still oversee the festival and association.

Some of the WBA sanctioned events throughout the world include competitions in ; Germany, South Korea, Serbia, France, Italy, Latvia, Russia, Netherlands, and the United States. The most prestigious bodypainting competition in all of North America is Living Art America.

Living Art America is the official North American Championships, also drawing artists from all over the world for a several day event, culminating in two days of competition in Professional, Emerging and UV categories. Organized by 5X world champions Scott Fray and Madelyn Greco, along with Ken Goldwasser and Randi Layne, this championship takes place yearly in Greensboro North Carolina, formerly in Atlanta Georgia.

Other well known bodypainting events in the United States include; Face and Body Art International Convention (FABAIC),  and NYC Bodypainting Day

Notable bodypainters include;

Craig Tracy of Skin Wars fame (featured judge) owns The Craig Tracy Gallery in New Orleans LA.  His bodypainting gallery and fine art approach to bodypainting has influenced many artists and created a broader appreciation for the art form. He consistently judges at a variety of competitions around the world.

Scott Fray and Madelyn Greco of Living Brush, located in Greensboro NC are two of the four organizers for Living Art America, the North American championships. They travel the world teaching and judging competitions, as well as having the distinct honor of being the only artists to have won five world championships back to back in different categories over four years.

Gesine Marwedel from Germany, paints ethereal pieces often depicting delicate animals. Her pieces often go viral in social media and are quickly reconizable. Her flamingo bodypainting is quite possibly her most famous.

Johannes Stotter of Italy is another artist whose pieces often go viral online. His most famous is the Chameleon, crawling along a branch but when revealed, is actually two bodypainted females.  His camouflage paintings of animals are hard to recognize as the human form without very careful inspection.

Modern bodypainting tools and supplies are readily available and safe for human skin. Paints and cosmetics that have cosmetic grade ingredients are the only products painters should be using on clients.

The term “non-toxic” has been used in reference to acrylic paints and other substances that are actually NOT safe for skin. The problem with this approach, is that the product is only “non-toxic” when used in accordance with its accepted protocol. Skin is not an approved use for any acrylic paint, or many other products made for other purposes. Anyone using products other than cosmetic grade/FDA approved paints should be questioned.

The following is a sampling of products and companies who create safe and richly pigmented paints for the purpose of face and bodypainting;

Water based paint cakes are one of the most popular and easily accessible products on the market. They only require water and paint brushes in order to be utilized, come in a large variety of textures and colors, and are easy to transport and sanitize.

Companies making water soluble cake paints include;
Cameleon (base line/metal line),
Mehron (Paradise AQ),
Kryolan (Aquacolor),
FAB,  or

Many artists in the bodypainting world use airbrush systems, and this adds to the list of products and tools one could potentially utilize. Airbrushing requires both a compressor for forced air, plus at least one airbrush which come in a huge variety of styles.

Airbrush paints are specifically designed to use in an airbrush system and include water soluble varieties, hybrids (alcohol based but fairly quick to remove) and alcohol based paints for the best durabilty.

Hybrid and alcohol based paints are made by companies like Proaiir,
and European body art

Water soluble paints for airbrush are made by companies such as Cameleon (airline),
and  Mehron (lux)

Some of the favorite airbrush companies according to most artists, are Iwata and Paasche  who sell both high quality airbrushes and compressors for both novice and professional.

There is also a wide variety of loose pigments, mixing mediums, and special effects one could use in conjunction with any of the above. Cosmetic companies offer such a wide variety of options now, all safe for skin and common at bodypainting events and competitions.

Bodypainting is showing up in commercials and films, magazines and festivals. It's resurgence in the modern world is something everyone can access, from students wanting to learn this amazing art form, to the public who wants to view temporary works of art, and professionals earning a living in this industry.

It's appeal is primitive. It's applications unlimited. The world of bodypainting awaits.