Is a painted body naked?

by Christopher Agostino

Is bodypainting just a way to get naked women out in public? I saw the promotional film for a documentary in the works that’s about bodypainting as a fine art, and in it an artist takes real umbrage when the filmmaker asks him if bodypainting exploits women. Although I sympathize with the artist’s annoyance with the question, since we work in a field that is too often represented by disturbing images from Key West showing up in your emails, or lots of naked painted people on bicycles, I can understand why an interviewer would ask it. In a group discussion a few years back with the genius behind Pro-shields (designed to protect the innocent by thoroughly covering nipples on female models to be bodypainted) the question turned to why such trivial items as whether the outline of a nipple is visible or not under the paint can determine whether people find bodypainting offensive or not. I heard a phrase often repeated that in body art the painting is what is meant to be looked at, not the body, and that folks that are just seeing (or voyeuristically enjoying) the nakedness of the body are missing the art. Speaking as a bodypainter who puts painted people (male and female) into the public view, I think this is disingenuous and it puts too much of the burden on the viewer when it is us, the body artists, who choose to present this as our art. Bodypainting is certainly not clothing, and therefore does not objectively remove or cover the nakedness of the model, however much it transforms their identity (and I do feel that a well painted body looks more fully clothed than, say, a women in bikini at the beach). Clothing protects the body and it changes and disguises the shape of the body. Bodypaint celebrates the body, specifically it celebrates the beautiful form of the human body — or we would be painting on flat canvas instead. So when someone looks at the model we have painted they should be seeing the model, the body, as well as the art.

Painted at the Face and Body Art International Convention, 2009, on a beautiful model.

The idealized human form in Greek and Roman art — naked.

In Western Culture the veneration of the human form is exemplified by the prevalence of the naked body in art and painting, which goes back to the Classical Greek conception of the naked human form as being the symbolic representation of the perfection of Nature. Athletes, we are told, competed naked in the ancient Olympics. In fact, as the influence of the Classical Greek culture spread, body arts declined in Western Cultures because the marking of the body was seen as a disfigurement of the perfect form of the naked body. Perhaps it is a sign of our continuing cultural progression that bodypainting has begun to enter the main stream of public perception again, for this is an art form that reaches beyond the Greeks. The return of body art into Western/European Culture is a world-inspired expansion of our understanding of art.

The tradition of celebrating the human body continues in Western art

The underlying reasons for traditional body art — meaning the use of bodypainting, tattooing and scarification in traditional cultures — are in its social and ritualistic functions. As cultures evolve over time, these ritualistic functions gain aesthetic values as well, they become art. In “Primitive Art”, Franz Boas writes about how, once the symbolic requirements of the mask (or bodyart) are achieved, the mask maker’s goal is to make the object beautiful  — the “artfulness” is always important.  When we look at cultural examples in which body art has progressed past ritual to the point where it is done for more purely aesthetic reasons, when it has become a “fashion”, at the foundation of those acts is a desire to celebrate the innate beauty of the human form. Through art, to pay homage to what God (or Nature) has made when he made man. This is the cultural explanation for what is perhaps the most profound use of body art that can be sited: the body painting of the Southeast Nuba culture of Sudan, a tribal culture in which individuals turned themselves daily into living, painted works of art as a veneration of the wonder of creation, demonstrated in the perfection of the human form. This was done when the individual was in their youth, their prime, their bodies in peak form. The older or the infirm did not paint themselves. 

“Whatever the source of the designs used on the body, the critical factor is that the body must be emphasized, complimented, enhanced. No design or artistic treatment must distract from the presentation of the physical form itself  the chief reason, after all, for the personal art rests in the proper cultural exposure and celebration of the healthy body.” — James Farris, Nuba Personal Art

I compare this to our modern body artists, and suggest we should own up to it. If we are not celebrating the beauty of the human form when we paint bodies, why do we predominantly paint ideally shaped models, female or male?

This is not an exploitation of models, women or men. No more than Alfred Steiglitz was exploiting Georgia O’Keeffe in his photographs. This is a celebration. This is art. This is art painted on naked people, and there is nothing wrong in that, because people are beautiful whether they are naked or not.

Learn more at my Body Painting Page

To learn more about our programs and performances:

follow me for the face of the day:!/storyfaces

5 comments on “Is a painted body naked?

  1. Pocket says:

    I love body painting and from my point of view it isn’t being naked. It is a coating and it disguises the appearance of the body and flesh.

  2. paula says:

    great blog Christopher! & love the Derain Dancer.

    It set me thinking……..why is it that, in the US in particular, some factions consider the naked human form disgusting & something that should not be shown, painted or otherwise.

    Why is it that some people consider, as you said your discussion with Leon was about, that nipples are bad, but if they are covered it’s OK??


  3. agostinoarts says:

    Some bodypainting does disguise the appearance of the body, some incorporates illusion to hide the body completely, or make it appear to be clothed when it isn’t – but some doesn’t, either intentionally or because the bodyart isn’t functioning as a “coating” of the skin. As I wrote the post, I was thinking about what I could say regarding the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, which must be the prevailing image of bodypainting in American culture, and that whole magazine is about seeing beautiful women with little on. The quality of the bodypainting is so high that thumbing through the magazine you wouldn’t know which bikinis are real and which are paint, but I don’t think we could say that either the actual bikinis or the painted ones are designed to disguise the appearance of the flesh. Bikinis were not invented to disguise anything.

    So, we shouldn’t be shy about owning up to bodypainting as a celebration of the human form, and seen as such, we can recognize that it is a different approach to something that is already accepted as part of art, culture and fashion.

    Paula – thank you for the encouragement. The question you ask about the objections to (and objectification of) certain parts of what “God gave us”, though, is too big for me to approach with the sense that I might know at least a bit of what I am talking about, as when speaking about the more specific subject of how bodypainting is perceived.

    I think, from our experience in the field, with both know that for the most part painted models feel more empowered and less objectified in the bodypaint.

  4. Kudos Christopher! Thank you for responding to this question publicly and with respect and intelligence. We are all in your debt.

    All the best, always.

    Christina Davison

  5. maria says:

    Looks Great!!!!

    Wish You the best.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *