“Being body painted helps you get more comfortable in your own skin,” says model Adriana Widmann, 22, seen in the video above. She is standing topless in a sunny Mar Vista living room on a Monday afternoon.
“Even though it’s not your own skin,” says Nicolette Spear, the artist painting her.
Spear, 30, founder of Body Fine Art, met Widmann, a trained ballerina, at Burning Man, where the two both performed as fire dancers. They were drawn to body painting for its focus on the physical — the communion of art and flesh.
The superbowl of body painting, the World Body Painting Festival, takes place yearly in Carinthia, Austria, and has been steadily growing since 1998. This Saturday, Body Fine Art, the West Coast’s answer to the WBPF, will take place at the Springs in the Downtown Arts District. Twenty artists from around the world will compete for a $5,000 prize. The theme of the competition is Sacred Body, referencing the importance of our earthly vessels and the spiritual energy that runs through them.
Just because the theme is a spiritual one does not mean the artists aren’t competitive.
“It’s funny to be competing in an artistic realm because it’s so subjective and, not to sound cliché, but it’s a wonderful opportunity to showcase what we do,” says Gilmore. “Still, people go there to compete, that’s for sure. The body painting community is supportive, but people definitely want to win.”
In a city of many subcultures, body painting still manages to be unique. It’s a mash-up of many established art worlds — fine art, makeup, performance, dance, high fashion — and its proponents come from all of those fields. Yet in the past it has been dismissed as a novelty, or as too overtly sexual to be taken seriously.
“There is an aspect of hedonism to it, and sometimes that can go off into fringe,” says David Gilmore. Gilmore is a well-known illustrator who painted the ceiling of Mariah Carey’s bedroom. He is featured on the Game Show Network’s body painting show Skin Wars.
“I try to stick into the fine art application of it,” says Gilmore. “Something you would see in a gallery or a coffee table book. It’s all about the presentation.”
As Gilmore struggles to corral body painting into the realm of fine art, its popularity at Burning Man and its many spin-offs has placed it en vogue. As an ancient, physical craft, it is, like many Burning Man spin-offs, a reaction to our digitally saturated society.
From geeks to sports fans, everyone is using body paint. Prominent body painters have recently been responsible for Gotye’s famous video for “Somebody That I Used to Know,” for the paint-on swimsuits in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, for Beyonce photo spreads and for a human recreation of the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones.
The point that artists like Spear and Gilmore are forwarding is that it is more than a novelty. It may be impermanent, but, like street art, that can be an advantage.
“Body painting is never precious, so you’re more willing to experiment,” says Spear, as she draws squiggles of green on Widmann's naked butt. “I personally believe you’re illustrating the energetic pathways on the skin. In that way, the model’s spirit or personality is being expressed on the skin, which is in some ways more real than the skin itself.”
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