Li Chi Slays the Dragon — from Bodies Alive!



See the video: Li Chi Slays the Dragon from Bodies Alive! 

An ancient Chinese legend brought to life on painted bodies.


Li Chi Slays the Dragon is one of the stories I tell most frequently. Mostly as a StoryFace, illustrating the tale on the face of one volunteer as I tell it, but, once upon a time, I had the chance to expand the story onto a cast of performers as a tale told with painted bodies. This video is from that performance at the Face and Body Art International Convention in 2008, as part of the Bodies Alive! show we presented there. I was joined in the painting by Christina Davison, Sara Glasgow, and Jennifer Wade, with help from some volunteers, and in performance by Blair Woodward, Cully Firmin, Rebecca Reil and Chloe Agostino. See my StoryFace version of Li Chi live at PIFA. Learn about the Bodies Alive Show. Learn about BodyStories.

My specific inspiration for how to take a legend like this and turn it into a sequence of images on painted bodies came from a puppet show I saw at the New Victory Theatre by Ping Chong, adapting to the stage Japanese ghost stories from the classic movie Kwaidan. Ping Chong’s stage design re-created a cinematic style, varying the size of the puppets and the perspective of the settings he placed them in to do closeups, or long shots or tracking shots, to tell the story sequentially — like in a movie.

The development process included sketches of the body designs which I scanned and then moved around in photoshop to create a rough storyboard, plus some color and design tests done in the course of my regular facepainting gigs. To help the performers understand the visuals that their painted bodies would create on stage, I sketched the designs onto T-shirts for them to wear during rehearsals. Included here are the studio photos taken at FABAIC by Rich Johnson, plus some of the other images created during the process, and since.

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Henri Matisse The Cut-Outs — Transformations Gallery

Matisse - The Circus, 1947

Matisse – The Circus, 1947

Matisse — Jazz

It is easy to be inspired by Matisse. Seeing Henri Matisse the Cut-Outs exhibit at MOMA, the exuberance of color, the freedom of forms — you want to be able to paint like that. The later rooms with the wall-sized works, and especially the photographs of how his studio was so full of this art as he created it — you want to live in rooms like that. I walked out of the exhibit wanting to play with color, to hold it in my hand and create pure forms with it as he did. Even if you don’t like Matisse, you have to be inspired by the absolute passion he had for creating art, so undeniable that it that led him to invent a new way to make art when he could no longer paint. MatisseCat_6g-fhd4--040727_agostinoartsChapter 10 of my book is titled “Matisse’s Cat”, in reference to the inspiration I draw from these struggles of great artists to find a way to satisfy that passion, and Matisse particularly because he spoke of the struggle, and left us evidence of his explorations and battles with line and form and color. I was writing about my own struggles to develop new cat face designs, particularly one based on a statue at the Bronx Zoo of a puma coming down a cliff, and in this iteration I had simplified the puma shape so much that it reminded me of a Matisse cut-out, and that encouraged me to loosen my hold on the realistic image and pursue it’s essence instead. This is the encouragement I take from Matisse: aim for the essential.

Matisse — Blue Dancer

We paint faces mostly with pure color. You might do blending in the sponge work, but then the imagery on top is usually solid colors with minimal shading — so the Cut-Outs relate directly. In adapting the Cut-Out figures to a face you have the additional playfulness of trying to fit his forms to the shapes of the face, which becomes an exercise in the fundamental skill of placing a flat image over the curves of the face. And I do mean “exercise” — I learn more about painting faces when I try to imitate the Cut-Outs.

Matisse - The Rumanian Blouse 1940

The Rumanian Blouse 1940

Matisse_RoumanianBlouse_artface_140920_agostinoartsMatisse’s painted portraits also adapt well, as he worked often with flat areas of pure color and precise linework. Strong colors and clean linework make for effective faces.



Face Gallery (Body Paintings below) ——————————————

at FABAIC 2011

at FABAIC 2011

Matisse-Icarus 2011

Matisse-Icarus 2011

Matisse-Icarus 2011

Matisse-Icarus 2011

Matisse Remix 2008

Matisse Remix 2008

Portrait of the Artist's Wife, 1912

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, 1912

Red Fish 1911

Red Fish 1911

Matisse Remix 2008

Matisse Remix 2008

Matisse Remix 2008

Matisse Remix 2008

Matisse Inspired bodypainting by Raphealle Fieldhouse

Matisse Inspired bodypainting by Raphealle Fieldhouse

New York Knicks — Basketball Face and Body Painting Gallery



Knicks_FaceOnWebsite_Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 11.08.59 PM-cropThe New York Knicks went to the NBA playoffs in 2013 and our Transformations artists were part of a number of special playoff events, including body painting 5 fans for the #CrazyNYK Fan Race to Times Square and painting the public for special Knicks events at Chase Bank locations around NYC. basketballKnicks_sketches1_130501I watched a game using the dvr pause button to sketch shots and dunks to explore face designs with players in action, to add to the stadium style faces we paint for sports events with big logos and team colors. I also adapted the NY skyline design I do for one real Crazy Fan who showed up in head-to-toe Knicks regalia, and he wound up as the poster child for the events on the Knicks website.


NY Knicks Crazy Fan Face Gallery:

After the first few events where we painted faces for Crazy Fan contests, we got a call asking if we could body paint 5 fan contestants for a race from Madison Square Garden to Times Square to win playoff tickets. In addition to my photos here there is a slideshow the Knicks posted with photos from the full process.

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From African Abstraction to Modern Art — Huntington Arts Council Workshop

I’ll be presenting a workshop on the journey from masks to modern art  — #modernprimitive — for the Huntington Arts Council on October 2.  I am re-posting here the notice from the Long Island Arts Alliance that this workshop will be a signature series event of this October’s Arts Alive Festival:

Cultural Arts Workshops:
African Abstraction &
Modern Art Intertwined


Wednesday, October 2, 2013 4:30 – 7:30 PM 

Huntington Arts Council 
213 Main Street
Huntington NY 11743  

Christopher Agostino – visual and performing artist is the author of Transformations! The Story Behind the Painted Faces and his work has appeared on TV and on magazine covers.  He will display examples of mask and makeup art traditions of different cultures in Africa.  The social function of masks and body arts will be examined and how these “primitive” arts influenced the revolutionary approach of Picasso, Matisse and the other early “modern” artists.  Participants will design a mask and observe Christopher’s face painting technique.    FREE for participating JOURNEY district teachers, $20 for general public and other teachers.

To register online: or email:  or call (631) 271-8423 X14. Learn about the full line up of workshops at: Huntington Arts Council

This is an Arts Alive LI Classic Signature Series event.

– See more at Arts Alive LI:

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The Story On Our Skin: Looking for Identity — A Racebridges Video

A StoryFace by Christopher Agostino asking the question: Why do we paint ourselves?   #storyfaces


video:  The Story On Our Skin: Looking for Identity Beyond Appearance

I was invited by Susan O’Halloran to create a story for her RaceBridges Storytelling Project to be videotaped at the National Storytelling Conference in Richmond, VA, this past August. I was one of perhaps a couple dozen performers who taped a story that day, one after the other, to add to this growing collection of personal tales of “inspiration, laughter and tears and the ongoing search for the American identity.” See over 100 videos at and learn about this resource for schools and other organizations.

And join in this October 9th, 10th and 11th, when over 70 of these video stories will play as part of the Stories Connect Us All online festival on Facebook (, allowing me and many of the other storytellers to participate in online interactions via questions and comments on the Facebook page. My video is scheduled to be a capstone of the festival, broadcast as the final story on October 11 at 9:30 pm (central time).

The RaceBridges Project asks storytellers to tell personal tales about their experiences with race and identity, and, as a facepainter, my working experience centers on very fundamental questions about the connection between appearance and identity, and what the ability to transform appearance means for personal and social identity, as lensed through my research into the origins and cultural significance of this art of transformation that I practice.


The Text:

“Why do we paint ourselves?”

a StoryFace by Christopher Agostino ©2013

As we humans first became self-aware we began to paint our skin.   Aware of who we are, aware of our place in the world.   Why did we paint ourselves?   The answer may be lost in the black charcoal and white ash of our first fires, in the ochre colored earths of where we first lived — for these are materials still used as makeups.   Was it through such colors that we first saw our skin as a vehicle of identity?   The color red signifies power and vitality in bodyart around the world — from the faces of the heroes in Chinese and Japanese theatre to the ring of red that frames the face of Maasai warriors.   How long has this been true?

When we first marked our skin, was it only as decoration?   Or were they marks of identity?   Could they be read, like the swirls of Maori tattoos, or the iconic symbol worn like a name badge by the Plains Indian, Bull Buffalo?   Were we saying, “look at my skin to know who I am”?  In celebrations of who we are we still paint ourselves, from modern birthday parties to village festivals in the Omo River Valley of Ethiopia.  The young men of the Southeast Nuba would paint their bodies every day in fantastic designs as a celebration of the beauty of humanity — for we are so beautiful that we deserve to be art.

From ancient rituals and the theatre born of them, to today’s incarnations in Halloween and Hollywood movies, the makeup artist brings our dreams, our gods, to life — and our nightmares too — raising us beyond our daily identities into the supernatural, giving form to our aspirations.  As a modern facepainter I’ve learned that more important than what I paint on someone’s face is how that painting makes them feel as the world sees them anew, transformed.

Our skin is the edge of who we are, where we touch the world.   As we paint our skin we transform the way the world sees us to take control of our identity.  Yet there is a duality of understanding that comes through these transformations, for if we can change identity by changing appearance, than we should come to understand that all appearance is transitory, mutable.   A fundamental function of mask and body arts in traditional cultures is as proof that forms can change, that to understand the true nature of the world you must look beyond form, to spirit. You must look beyond the mask.

No matter how many thousands of faces I’ve painted, or what I’ve painted on them, one element always remains the same. The eyes. The human eyes that look back at me, through the mask.  And through the painted mask, everyone’s eyes seem to look the same to me, as I imagine they have always looked since the beginning, when we first became aware.



This “MultiFace” image came from a makeup design I painted on myself in 2006 as the author’s photo in the frontispiece of my book. Around that time, I occasionally used a version of the design in a performance piece for educational settings, in which I painted a volunteer’s face with multiple sections of traditional designs to demonstrate different cultural uses of bodyart.

Learn more about StoryFaces.

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