Plenty of people walk around Los Angeles in various states of undress, but not many know what it's like to show up somewhere clothed only in paint. Yet body painting is alive and well in our fair city, practiced by a handful of artists who varnish nude or nearly nude models for film, commercials and events ... or just for their own artistic expression.
We tracked down three such pigment slingers to find out how they work, and what it's like to coat the canvas of a living body.
Filippo Ioco sits in a friend's kitchen in Berlin during a Skype conversation, the early evening light filtering in behind him as his image moves across my computer screen. Taking a drag on a cigarette, the 44-year-old tells the story of painting a man's body to match a live Burmese python, back when he lived in New York.
"I used to work on the rooftop a lot," he says. "Whenever I had a woman up there, nobody seemed to mind. But the one time I had a guy, somebody called the police."
He and his model escaped unscathed and unticketed, but Ioco, who now calls Hollywood home, notes that Europe -- where he's working for several months -- provides a welcome change in cultural norms.
"Europe is a little more open to nudity than the U.S.," he says.
Known for his meticulous hand-painted pieces and outlandish designs for advertisements, including a well-known Coors Light commercial featuring silver women stepping out of a beer can, Ioco grins mischievously as he recalls how he fell into adorning human flesh 25 years ago.
"I got tired of having gallery shows where people would come eat all the food, drink all the wine and then leave," he says. To entice visitors to stay, "I came up with the idea of painting someone into my paintings."
After that, he was hooked. "Painting the body is exciting," he says. "It becomes living art."
Check out Ioco's work at Ioco Body Art
When X-Men: First Class was released in 2011, much ado was made of the long hours spent turning Jennifer Lawrence into Mystique.
But Lufeng Qu, who headed up the team of artists who painted Lawrence, shrugs off the notion that they did anything out of the ordinary.
"My work is physically demanding," she says, sipping a mango smoothie outside Porto's Bakery in Burbank on a recent Saturday afternoon. "When we did Mystique's makeup, we were in all different kinds of positions; it's like you're playing Twister."
It's only going to be difficult, she adds, "if you don't love it."
Originally from China, Qu studied fine art as a child, and came to the U.S. after college to work on films. Since then, the 39-year-old has wielded her brush to turn actors into zombies, skinned bodies and aliens, in addition to the occasional cerulean mutant.
Qu gleans inspiration from some dark places. Her eyes light up when she talks about visiting Gunther von Hagens' "Body Worlds" -- an art exhibit that displays preserved human bodies -- and a studio exec once took her to the morgue to find out what an autopsy looks like. But despite the sometimes gruesome and morbid research, Qu says she's constantly inspired by the challenge of creating something that looks real on film.
"It never feels like a job," Qu says about her work in a later email. "It feels like I'm going to movie sets to play."
Check out Qu's work on her website, LufengQu.com.
"The guys kind of like me, and the women all think I'm Satan."
Mark Frazier is talking to me from the car as he drives home to Irvine on a recent Friday afternoon, making this observation about his neighbors in what he calls his "Stepford-like community." They harbor these opinions, he says, because of his job -- Frazier has been Playboy's go-to body painter for the past 20 years.
The 55-year-old artist, who's on his way back from Playboy Studios West in Los Angeles as we chat, is responsible for bedecking models in skimpy swaths of color for parties and photo shoots. The designs are created to look like real lingerie, and they take about 45 minutes to complete.
To an outside observer, gilding the naked bodies of some of the world's most beautiful women might seem like an unusually good way to make a living. But after a while, Frazier says, it gets to be routine.
"Painting on Playmates is just like painting on any other person," he says. "I became numb to the nudity a long time ago."
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Born and raised in West Covina, Frazier now works all over the world, running his company with his wife of 30 years and their two grown children. He talks about his vocation with the lighthearted detachment of someone who's nearly impossible to shock, but the sincerity that comes with having turned his passion into his life's work.
"This has allowed me to do a lot of things that I never would have been able to," Frazier says, adding that there are other benefits to his line of business, too. "You bring body-painted girls with you, you get in a lot of places."
Check out Frazier's work at Frazier Arts.