Body Painting History: The Origins of This Ancient Artform

body paint history

Painting is one of the most unique and personal art forms known to man. Since ancient times, body painting has been a form of expression for people back then. It is crucial for us to understand body painting history, and how this ancient art form has evolved through the years.

Whether it was for artistic purposes, religious rituals, or for whatever other reason — body painting is one of the earliest ways that human beings have been able to show their creativity. To this day, body painting has manifested itself in many other forms. 

But how did body painting actually come to be known as one of the most respected, accepted, and popular forms of art that have lasted up to this day? Here is a complete guide to the history of body painting — a walkthrough of how it came to be and how has it transformed itself throughout the years leading up to the 21st century. 

Origins of Body Painting 

When did body painting originate? 

To start it all off, let us take a look at the early beginnings of body painting which dates back to the early years of human history. 

It all started way back when indigenous tribes even during the prehistoric times decorated themselves with various pigments with different colors and textures spread all over their bodies. Still to this day aboriginal body paint is used by the descendents of these same tribes.

By using raw materials such as dyes coming from plants and fruits to name a few, body painting was a prominent way of adhering to the community’s rituals and traditions. 

While colorful dyes exist for body painting practices before, most of the time, tribes opted for more simple color combinations with plain gray or white paint decorated over their bodies instead. Commonly, these minimalist colors were extracted from natural resources such as clay, chalk, ash, and believe it or not — even animal dung. 

To pinpoint an exact timeframe as to when modifying the body for artistic purposes all began — a study by Enid Schildkrout of the American Museum of National History sheds light on the origins of body painting and body art as a whole. In her publication, Schildkrout dates the practice of body painting to be around 30,000 years old already. 

Along with popular proof of prehistoric humans such as handprints and ochre deposits, evidence of body painting can be seen along the cave walls which early human beings used to document their day-to-day lives. Furthermore, Schildkrout also asserts that while art is known to be one of the earliest signs of humanity, she further clarifies that the human body might even have been the first “canvas” for the human race. 

How body painting influenced art

It is definitely not an exaggeration to claim that body painting has literally defined humanity from the very beginning. 

Body painting is not a recent fad that has picked up during the past centuries, for thousands of years, this popular form of art has spread across many different cultures and communities literally all across the globe. 

Besides documented events of body painting, there exists even physical evidence of the practice in the form of ancient graves containing trinkets, figurines, and dolls that have been decorated with body paint all over them. 

Body painting is a practice that is common to literally every single tribe and community that has thrived during the ancient times — and one can even argue that the practice is still widely accepted worldwide up to the present date. Ellen Futter, who also comes from the American Museum of Natural History as its acting president, has confirmed this assumption, by saying:

“There is no known culture in which people don’t do this, whether permanently or temporarily.” 

While several body modification practices which prove to be impractical nowadays such as neck elongation and head shaping (forcing the skull into a particular shape or form) has not been as popular as it previously was since modern civilization began, the art of body painting is still a common modification technique both with the common folk and even the tribes and communities from ancient times that have carried over their practices up to this day. 

Now that we have a specific time frame in mind, we need to understand where exactly body painting originated.

Where did body painting originate? 

According to expert sources, shreds of evidence of decorating and stylizing the human body can be traced back to locations such as the Italian-Austrian Alps. Egypt, Europe, and Central Asia. 

There are many popular relics of the ancient past that depict signs of the existence of body painting during the peak of their eras such as the preserved body of Otzi the Iceman which bore signs of the prehistoric European tattoo art. 

Another example of an ancient body painting ritual in action is from a man belonging to the Chilean Chinchorro culture — a community that lasted from around 7,000 to 1,500 BCE that is most known for their funerary and mummification practices — which many experts claim to be the oldest known sign of body art in humans. And what’s even more interesting is that the tradition of body painting has spread across even more areas up to the present date with observations of tribes and cultures in countries such as Australia and the Pacific Islands also having their fair share of body painting rituals and traditions. 

While body painting still enjoys commonplace practice among many indigenous tribes all over the globe — the art of decorating one’s body is adapted in many other contemporary ways which will be further discussed in this guide. 

Why Do People Paint Their Bodies?

With all the talk of the origins of body painting and how it came to be and where it began, the next question to be asked is why do people paint their bodies? Why was body paint used? 

Humans have painted their bodies for a number of reasons. From cultural norms to simply creative self-expression, body painting has lasted for thousands of years mainly due to the continuous interest that people have in incorporating body art into their lives up to this day. 

During the prominence of tribal culture, body painting was recognized as an important part of rituals and cultural practices as many before believed that the art of painting oneself helps in moderating body heat. And that applying certain patterns such as straight lines adorned all over the body helps reduce instances of insect bites. 

While reasons for body painting vary across different beliefs and cultures throughout history, the most common reason ancient humans have incorporated body painting into their lives so prominently and casually is mainly for their day-to-day activities and even their spiritual discovery. 

Body painting was and continues to be a way for people to showcase their inner qualities. Depending on the design and the size of the tattoo, a lot of assumptions can be made about a person even back then. Sometimes, tribes would decorate themselves in body painting art that had their inner wishes laid out as a sign of hopefulness. 

Other reasons that would motivate a person to have their body painted back then would be as a sign of worship to their gods. Many tribes folk would have images of their respective deities adorned in their exposed regions as a sign of religious respect towards the gods that they praised.

The importance of body painting

Additionally, early body painting also had elements of nature and war as their primary designs. Body painting is also an important part of the early people’s most known rituals. Besides as a practice done before engaging in war as mentioned previously, body painting is also common during many practices that have survived up to this day such as weddings, death, and even during funerals. 

Adding to these, body painting is also a prominent sign of fashion even before. Certain designs and patterns were painted on bodies to showcase that a person has a high position or rank — and when not applied as a sign of one’s status, body painting also plays a part in the “rituals of adulthood” that young people went through in the past. 

It’s astounding to see that these examples of how body painting was used before have still survived up to this day albeit in a newer and more contemporary version. An example of this modern take on body painting is brides in India decorating themselves with tattoos during wedding ceremonies. 

It just goes to show that while the relationship between humans and body painting has evolved throughout the centuries that have passed — the reasons behind the art in the first place have not experienced as much change as one would expect. And even if body painting has expanded its influence throughout many practices and traditions — the essence behind the ritual and how it is applied by people still remains strong to this day. 

What Cultures Use Body Paint?

As mentioned previously, body painting has expanded its reach and influence across many nations and cultures — while the purpose behind body painting has been roughly the same throughout said communities, the style and approach have differed with the many tribes and groups of people that have embraced the art of body painting in their day to day lives. 

Here are some cultures that have used body paint in their rituals and everyday happenings then and now. 

Body Painting in America

On the Northwest coast of North America, several Indian clans have been documented to have decorated animal crests as tattoos on their bodies to signify membership in their communities. Indigenous Australian tribes — more popularly referred to as the Aboriginals — also have body painting rituals that have survived to this day. 

A semi-permanent style of body painting called mehndi is also practiced in the nation of India. Usually only applied in the hands and legs, mehndi was first used as a means to “cool down the body”. However, the practice has since evolved into a creative art expression with many intricate patterns and designs that are prominent, especially during celebrations such as weddings, feasts, and Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of Ramadan. 

Mehndi is commonly referred to in the Western language as a “henna tattoo” due to the material used in the dye being reddish paste extracted from the henna bush. Central and South Americans — popularly called ‘Native Americans’, also have their own versions of body painting whose form they have stayed true to since the early days of their communities. 

On their end, body painting also comes in the form of semi-permanent tattooing which uses particular ingredients for the dye used namely juice from the Genipa Americana tree which especially grows in the regions of North and South America. 

Additionally, the manner by which body painting is applied to the body also has its different versions throughout several groups. Traditional Polynesian tattoo artists preferred a more raw approach to body painting by using a hammer-and-needle technique to pierce the skin with dye in order to accomplish said designs and patterns. 

Japanese people on the other hand go through the more delicate approach with body painting by using needles bundled together in wooden handles. 

Body Painting in Africa

Various African cultures also have their own creative take on body painting. Used as an expression of one’s manhood, power, and position on the social ladder — body painting in African tribes and communities was above all a very expressive way of showing off their culture. The specific colors used in body painting also hold their respective meanings and purposes in African culture. 

Showcasing one’s rank is one of them — and besides flexing the authority of high officials such as Chiefs and Sorcerers in a certain group, African body painting was also used during mourning and as a repellant of evil spirits. The women of the Berbers, an African indigenous group, also use henna designs called siyala on their hands and feet for wedding celebrations. 

The Dinka people — an ethnic group of people commonly located along the famous Nile River in the region of Sudan — use materials such as ash, cattle dung, and even urine to make the mixture they apply on their faces. 

On the flip side, body painting is not only used for rituals and other special occasions in African culture as well, men aged between 17 and 30 years old from the Nuba tribe which occupy the Nuba Mountains in Sudan use body painting as a way to indicate their age — sort of like an ID which they adorn on their bodies almost every day. 

Types of Body Painting 

Body painting has also manifested itself in many different ways as it evolved over time. Besides the many different styles and approaches to body painting, the ancient art form has also had many creative twists and turns during its life span which continues to evolve and improve to this day all over the world. 

Face painting

Face painting is one of the more prominent and commonly used types of body painting from then up to now. With documentation of its existence since the Paleolithic era, face painting has been and continues to be an important part of many rituals and ceremonies among tribes with some practices surviving up to this day. 

As the name implies, face painting is the practice of applying decorated patterns on the faces using non-toxic materials such as chalk, henna, and pigment mixed from extracts of berries, fruits, and leaves. 

Body Marbling

Another type of body painting is body marbling. Basically, the marbling process begins with a select pattern of non-hazardous paint floating on a container filled with water. The person’s hands or face would then be submerged in the paint-filled water for a short period of time. Soon after, a beautiful and spontaneous blend of colors would be seen once the painted region resurfaces. 

Hand Art

Hand art, from the term itself, is another form of body painting that focuses primarily on the hands as its canvas. As mentioned previously, hand art is a common practice among several tribes around the world such as those located in the regions of India and the continent of Africa. Usually, hand artists work closely with ‘hand models’ for their works. 

Simply put, hand models are professionals hired through agencies that particularly specialize in the art of hand poses. 

Modern Body Painting

Body glitter is another known type of body painting that is also popular during celebrations and festivals. Usually applied in women, body glitter makes use of shiny ornaments and reflective glitter over the breasts. Commonly, body glitter takes the form of a bikini or a bra. And in some cases, body glitter can also be applied in more intimate regions as a more expressive form of art. 

Some other types of body painting that have gained prominence throughout the years include fine art body painting which does away with patterns and shapes and goes for more realistic designs such as actual objects painted onto the body, character body painting that turns the model into a visualized fantasy character. 

There is also UV body painting which can only be seen when exposed to ultraviolet light, fashion body painting which is used to enhance a fashion designer’s wardrobe during fashion shows and photoshoots, and waterproof body painting which is used during sports competitions such as swimming and boxing. 

Even action painting wherein a model is painted live in front of an audience usually accompanied by music and other effects. While body painting is mainly done for artistic purposes. 

It also has many other uses outside the realm of creative expression such as in the military. Before engaging in combat, some fighters use camouflage paint to disguise themselves better in their surroundings. 

Body Painting Throughout History 

As discussed previously in this guide, body painting has been around for a very long time. And true enough, it has experienced many shifts and transformations during the centuries that it has been practiced by people from all over. 

From the ancient people up to the contemporary era, body painting is one of the hallmarks of human history — one that literally defines us as human beings and our capacity to think, create, and be expressive. One of the most popular types of body painting to survive up to the present day is tattooing. 

Besides the ancient tattooing techniques observed in mummified remains as early as 3250 BCE, the technique of applying pigments and dyes (whether permanently or temporarily) on one’s skin has been a popular method of body painting in other corners of the world. 

The Austronesian people, especially those located in regions that we now call Taiwan and the coast of South China, are one of the most avid practitioners of tattooing in the early days. Hindus and Sikhs have used body painting for their rituals and celebrations as early as 2100 BCE. And as mentioned earlier, henna is a go-to material for communities located in the nation of India. 

Body Painting Acceptance

However, not everyone was on board with the idea of body painting. In 1000 CE, Orthodox Christians from Europe viewed body painting as a pagan act and banned its use among its people back then. 

While it was mentioned that body painting has progressed slowly but surely as civilization also developed through the years — the emergence of body painting as a recognized art form in modern times first blew up in the 1930s when Max Factor Sr., a renowned inventor of cosmetics, shook the public with his full body painting showcased on the model Sally Rand during the 1933 World Fair held in Chicago. 

While the artistic venture did not immediately spread knowledge about body painting, it was enough to tickle the curiosity and fascination of many artists back then. And while the early European Christians were not too keen on the idea of body painting throughout history, the art form made a comeback in the continent in the 1960s when it was recognized as an artistic expression and even a form of social activism. 

Even if this was the case with the more civilized world — many tribes that have lasted in the present times continue to view body painting as a spiritual practice passed down through generations upon generations of their people. In the 21st century, body painting enjoys a wide audience of people from all over the world. 

Many events such as exhibitions, competitions, and classes are held in different areas around the globe. But the biggest and most popular event related to body painting to this day is the World Bodypainting Festival held in Austria every year. 

With artists from over 50 nations and attracting thousands of audiences, the World Bodypainting Festival is a 3-day event and competition that is preceded by a ‘preparatory week’ which involves workshops and other mini-events. 

Famous Body Painters 

Since the boom of body painting in the modern scene. There have been many artists that have flexed and flaunted their styles and creativity when it comes to the ancient art form. With a technique that is sophisticated and precise as body painting, there are some talented creators who have stood out among the rest when it comes to decorating human bodies. 

Liu Bolin

Source: Time

Famously going by the nickname “The Invisible Man”, Liu Bolin, a 49-year-old body painting artist from Shandong, China, is renowned for his ability to blend into any kind of surrounding — much like a chameleon. 

Bolin’s signature style is wearing a set of clothes with every inch painted on based on a specific background as a reference. The result is an optical illusion where Bolin perfectly blends into the background at just the right position, producing the invisible effect that he has gained popularity for. 

One of his most famous works is the “Hiding in the City” collection which was made as a criticism of the government’s actions during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. 

Youri Messen-Jaschin

Youri Messen-Jaschin, a Latvian artist from Switzerland, is a body painter who is not only known for his use of oils and gouaches but also his preference for very strong colors in his works namely reds, yellows, greens, and blues. 

Most of his exhibitions related to body painting are generally organized in nightclubs. Performing in public, Messen-Jaschin’s works are marked by a signature style that involves movement and geometric shapes — a preference he acquired during his studies in Göteborg in Sweden. 

Some of his notable works include exhibitions in the Galerie du Château and the POPA Museum. 

Alexa Meade

On the other hand, Alexa Meade, an installation artist from the United States, covers new territory for body painting by creating the illusion of flatness instead of making the concept hyper-realistic in her works especially when photographed. 

Cleverly tricking the viewer’s mind into a state of artistic confusion, Meade makes her pieces more immersive by placing her models in a creative set. When all the elements are put together, she is able to create the optical trick of ‘living paintings’ in her works which is really a sight to see. 

In an interview with Tina Essmaker of The Great Discontent, the LA-based body painter shared her passion for the art form, she said: 

“I was very critical and perfectionistic, and I’d overwork it and get frustrated; it wasn’t a fun experience. I don’t feel positive about making things on a flat surface—there’s this mental block there.” 

Mead then went on to share her thoughts about realistic works, she commented: 

“But when I create things in 3-D, it’s completely different. It unleashes a different part of my brain altogether and I’m able to create much more fluidly.” 

Johannes Stötter

Source: Insider

Johannes Stötter, an Italian-based body painter, has won many awards for his iconic works that take inspiration from nature. Praised for his attention to detail and technicality while at the same time retaining the creative feel in his pieces, Stötter’s body painting works are so realistic and natural-looking that viewers would probably have to look twice. 

While there are many popular masterpieces in his portfolio, Stötter first burst into the mainstream with his 2013 body painting exhibition where he used five models to imitate the likeness of a tropical frog. 

Body Painting in Media 

With the popularity of body painting as an art form, it is not a surprise to see it in the mainstream media. Whether in the form of TV shows, magazines, and Internet fame, body painting continues to bask in the spotlight as one of the most regarded and respected art forms even in recent times. 

The flexibility and spontaneousness of body painting are enough to attract people from all walks of life to gain an interest in either taking up body painting themselves or simply just gaining a better appreciation for the centuries-old expression of art. 

Skin Wars

Skin Wars

One of the many examples is Skin Wars, a body painting competition TV show that aired in America way back in 2014. Featuring judges such as iconic drag queen RuPaul Charles, Skin Wars lasted for three seasons, attracting audiences of all ages in the process. 

The format of the show was simple, a series of body painting challenges will be given to the contestants, with one contender being eliminated at the end of each episode until a winner can be declared. 

Demi Moore’s Vanity Fair Cover

One of the photos of Demi Moore on the Vanity Fair

Body painting also made it into mainstream pop culture when hit American actress Demi Moore was featured on the cover of the popular monthly magazine Vanity Fair in body painting by talented artist Joanne Gair. 

The iconic cover which many refer to as “Demi’s Birthday Suit” or simply “The Suit” is considered to be the ‘introduction of body painting to the modern world’. 

Body Painting in Movies

Body painting has also made its mark in the movie industry with many blockbusters featuring their own version of famous body painting art that still lingers in the minds of audiences to this date. 

Some of these popular films include Black Panther, Apocalypse Now, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. 

Body Painting on Social Media

The Internet has also had its fair share of viral trends that can be traced back to body painting. On the popular video-sharing platform TikTok, the ‘#bodypaint’ hashtag alone has over 3.1 billion views. 

Popular TikTokers have been showing off their body painting skills by imitating the likeness of superheroes and celebrities such as Tenisha Billington (@flawlessbytenisha) who has over 1.4 million followers and 28 million likes as of writing and Marina Eloise (@marinaeloise) who has 1.4 million followers as well and 29.5 million likes to this day. 

It is definitely not surprising to say that body painting has become a global phenomenon in the modern world as it was during ancient times. And with the millions of people that continue to be interested in the timeless art form, body painting is not going anywhere at the moment. Truly, body painting has told countless stories through its art — influencing and amazing people then, now, and for the years to come.

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