What is Bodypainting?

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  • Written By: Britt Archer
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 August 2019
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Body art has a rich history in nearly every culture of the world, from tattooing to bodypainting. While modern body art is sometimes seen as the realm of rebellious teenagers, a resurgence in the movement has brought body art back to the mainstream. The term "bodypainting," or body painting, may refer to any number of things, including, but not limited to, face painting and body painting in Western culture, mendhi (or henna) from India, woad from ancient Scotland, huito from South America and tattoos.

Originally body paint was worn during ceremonies such as marriages, funerals, coming of age rites or before battles and wars. It is still practiced for these purposes among some societies today. Body painting was often utilized in religious ceremonies, and examples of this can be traced back to early period cave paintings in various parts of the world.

Body art also has a longstanding tradition in the theater and performing arts world, such as the traditional white face of Japanese Kabuki theater. Modern circus clown makeup is also considered by some to be a form of body art. In the case of body art for performing arts, the methods and materials that are used are often heavily guarded secrets among performers.


In America, bodypainting saw a revival in the 1960s when "hippies" or the counterculture embraced the ideals of comfort in one's own body and the right to adorn it as one sees fit. During this era, bodypainting was also catapulted into the art world by Yves Klein, a French artist. Yves Klein painted his models and had them roll, throw or otherwise imprint their forms onto bare canvas.

While bodypainting isn't always practiced on a nude subject, enthusiasts generally agree it got its start in that manner. Today, the term bodypainting may encompass a full mural on a nude human body, a chaste painting of a flower on a child's cheek at a carnival, or a sports fan painting his favorite athlete's number on his back. All of these are considered valid examples of modern bodypainting.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, popular culture experienced a return to more traditional bodypainting. This was noted by a rise in demand for henna, the substance used to design traditional Indian mendhi art. Another surge occurred regarding "tribal" style tattoos.

The trend of bodypainting also has found its way into various media and advertising outlets. Most notable, for example, is a section in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, where models wear nothing but painted bikinis. Playboy also has featured several layouts and advertisements with models in various types of body paint.


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