It was a windy Saturday at 4 p.m. and a golden Buddha was painted on my belly. On my back was a fleur de lis and a glittery night sky. Words were scrawled over my chest and arms: "Happiness," "I Do," "Truth." People ogled and took photos of me. I felt uncomfortable, powerful and inadequate at the same time.
I was an exhibit at Body Fine Art, Southern California's first big body-painting competition. On the afternoon and evening of May 16, a sell-out crowd of 500 packed the inside and outdoor patios of the Springs, a vegan restaurant and wellness center on Mateo Street in the downtown Arts District. The attendees watched as the painted models stood under spotlights. They dotted the drab crowd like rare gems, wrapped in blazing color. One man was painted black and white, zebralike, with a streak of rainbow running through his middle. Two women had colorful fetuses painted on their stomachs.
Body paint is experiencing a renaissance. Prominent body painters have recently been responsible for the abstract imagery painted on Gotye in his video for "Somebody That I Used to Know," the paint-on swimsuits in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, and a human re-creation of the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones. Many body-painting artists are based in L.A., to help get them work in Hollywood.
At Body Fine Art, 20 were competing for a grand prize of $5,000, one of the largest pots on the competitive body-painting circuit. The crowd was mostly stylish Burner types: 30- and 40-somethings, wealthy, healthy, slightly crunchy and rocking various species of fedora. KCRW's celebrity DJ Jason Bentley played a set.
At around 9 p.m., in a dim back room away from the madness, three judges sat behind a table. After painting for more than seven hours, each artist had about two minutes to display and explain his or her work privately for the judges.
The artists led their silent models in, gave their pitch and filed out. Some models had ornate headdresses to complement their paint, while others carried staffs or wands. The subjects ranged widely, from overtly political statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (a winged headdress depicted both flags) to new age–y celebrations of nature and spirituality. "Sacred Body" was the event's theme.
"I'm looking for something magical," says 47-year-old Craig Tracy, one of the judges and the alpha dog of modern body painting. He's also a judge on Skin Wars, the Game Show Network's competitive body-painting reality show.
"A machine can paint very well," Tracy says. "What makes an artist is that thing a machine can't do."
Rejecting the mechanistic is a recurring motif among proponents of body painting, who view it as a return to a more primal practice.
"I see body painting as a reaction against an industrialized, computerized culture," Tracy says. "It is the oldest form of painting in the fucking world." Indeed, there is evidence of Neanderthals using body paint 50,000 years ago.
While celebrating the form's primal nature is important, body painters are careful not to make it too much about sex appeal. Tracy operates the world's first and only body-painting gallery in the French Quarter in New Orleans, which gets about 100 visitors a day. Despite New Orleans' reputation for public nudity, he insists that his work is much more than hedonism.
"Body painters from other cities might come to New Orleans to paint boobs, but I'm doing fine art," Tracy says.
As the name Body Fine Art indicates, categorizing their work as fine art is important for body painters. One of the other judges was Alex Barendregt, founder of the World Bodypainting Festival in Austria, which draws 250 artists and 35,000 attendees every year. Both Barendregt and Tracy were drawn to body painting by the work of a 1960s German model and artist named Veruschka von Lehndorff. Veruschka, who's 6-foot-3, starred in Blow Up and is the daughter of a man famous for trying to assassinate Hitler. She pioneered body painting as a fine art, distinct from makeup or modeling. Many of the tropes of modern body painting — animal skins, camouflaging into natural backgrounds, use of headdresses — were Veruschka's concepts.
After discovering Veruschka, Barendregt wondered why there wasn't more work like hers. This was back in 1998, and he was only 20 years old and living in a small town in Austria, but he decided to do something.
"I put body painting in a park next to a monastery and a church, and I had a scandal," he says. "The media was hungry and there were big headlines in Austria. It was very negative press, but the artists really enjoyed it, so I created a website and all of a sudden I was getting constant requests."
Thus modern body painting was born. From the beginning, the art/decency controversy has been both its essential flaw and its saving grace.
At Body Fine Art, the models were topless and wearing thongs. A straight guy couldn't help but find the female bodies alluring. The women had a variety of body types, whereas the four male bodies were more uniform in their perfection, all with carved six-packs and Superman pecs.
That is, except for one. I was painted by San Francisco–based body painter and model Jessica Yurash, who kindly donated her materials and time for this story (a single body-painting session can cost an artist upwards of $100). I stood for two long hours while drinking beer and talking to her about her craft. I was not one of her better subjects.
"You were very wiggly," she says.
Yurash points out that the human form is at the core of body painting, but it's a vessel for communicating something larger. "Anyone can make boobs look like eyeballs. It's about taking attention away from those areas, to focus on the body as a canvas itself."
But using the body as canvas introduces an unpredictable variable. Painters say that despite their preparatory sketching, something always changes, because the body is a fluid thing. Unlike a canvas, a body needs rest, sustenance and temperature control. At Body Fine Art, there were power issues. The lights flickered and the heaters that were supposed to keep the models warm kept going out. They had to spend a few minutes huddling in robes or blankets. The artists had to adjust.
At around 10:30 p.m., the judges took the stage and Barendregt announced the top three finishers. The grand prize was taken by Cheryl Ann Lipstreu, whose work was about female genital mutilation in Africa. Part of her composition was an enormous pair of silver scissors stretched across her model's crotch. The scissors were so well integrated with the body that it took several glances to notice them. The piece also featured a lion's head and the face of a crying African.
After the announcement, and after standing and performing for almost 12 hours, the models could finally relax. They danced wildly onstage to Bentley's EDM set, looking like some ancient, raw version of humans, something elemental and sacred. Sensual? Most definitely. But also much more.
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