From the moment humanity started experimenting with crushing and rubbing pigment decoratively, we were adorning, decorating, illustrating, enhancing and disguising ourselves for a multitude of reasons. From increasing our sense of self, depicting and altering perceptions, through to rituals of mark making for initiation or spiritual significance, body art has been around since the dawn of time and comes in many varied forms practiced throughout every culture. Body art is dynamic and in flux. The forms change as the subject moves, the story and image rewrites itself constantly. It is constantly moving, alive, breathing and changing. The artist also surrenders control of authorship and the wearer/model/subject takes a life of its own, partaking in the sharing of the ownership of the artwork. Body art blurs boundaries with traditional notions of what art is and challenges the parameters of what constitutes an artist, a muse, a performer, a storyteller, a canvas or a gallery.
Body art is a form of creative expression that utilises the human body. The most common forms of body art are full body and partial tattoos, body piercing, body painting, face painting, temporary tattooing, and henna tattooing. Other types include scarification, branding, sub dermal implants, scalpeling, shaping, body modification, and cosmetic coalitions. Body art is an expanding artistic practice that has developed through many centuries and cultures, to become what we see and experience today. It plays a significant role in both conventional, popular and alternative culture.
Body art is a closely linked subcategory of performance art. This is contemporary art practice where artists utilise their own and other’s bodies to express themselves. There can be extreme body art that involves pushing physical boundaries and limits through to more conventional work such as body painting that involves illustrating the flesh to create images. Local artist Geoff Hupfeld on the Gold Coast is well known for his exploration of body art, from working with the concept of simulating the look of actual fabric on the model through to experimenting with the purely abstract.
Body painting uses the human skin as a canvas, providing interesting explorations in form and depiction. It is transient and therefore photographers are often participants in creating the spectacle as well. A style of body painting uses camouflage, where the body may disappear into a background, or create an entirely different concept/image/creature through the placement of forms.
Techniques range from brush and sponging which is often used in face painting and temporary tattooing through to airbrushing – both freehand and using stencils as well as special effects such as adding prosthetics to change the look under the paint.
In the 21st century the body has become a subject of broader discussion through the impact of hybrid arts, new technologies, virtual bodies and topics such as implants and cyborgs and the absence of the body. Today national body art events encompass large numbers of people all participating in the process and creation of the performance of the artwork. For example, in Sydney an artist named Jake Lloyd Jones conceived the Sydney Body Art Ride which is an annual event. This is a ‘happening’ where participants are painted to combine to form a living rainbow that rides to the Pacific Ocean and immerses itself in the waves. The Sunshine Coast town of Eumundi annually hosts The Australian Body Art Festival. Held during May, participants compete for prize money in a live event where artists paint models with specific criteria to follow. The Australian Tattoo and Body Art Expo also travels Australia annually reaching all the major capital cities hosting many exhibits and stalls featuring products, businesses and artists all centred around the practice of the body as canvas. An international creative event that incorporates body art takes place in the Black Rock Desert of north west Nevada USA in September each year, called Burning Man. This alternative event has become so popular that there is now a waiting list of more than two years to be able to acquire tickets.
The human body is a subject of beauty and of controversy in its own right. It can be seen as a work of art in itself and can be branded as something to censor (subjects such as nudity stirring many conflicting ideas). Our bodies are the result of the superb and beautiful relationship between natural mathematical equations, the Fibonacci sequence and our unique DNA and living experiences. Each person has their own essence of beauty, unique to themselves, and some body art works comment on this and can be used to enhance an individual’s unique qualities or to make a statement. The natural world, human beings and animals can all be a source of inspiration for the creation of body art. Life drawing and life modelling where the study of the human form provides inspiration for drawings and designs, and this area of artistic practice can also blur the boundaries on what is body art and what is considered traditional visual arts.
Face painting today is also growing to encompass icons and characters of popular culture such as famous movie and animation entities, Halloween imagery, Marvel Comic icons and Japanese anime characters. In face painting as in body art, a transformation takes place. It is somewhat theatrical but also identity forming. Young people show great enthusiasm for face painting and it is a popular global trend. There is a magical moment of transformation where the subject reaches within the imagination and artistic visions emerge, and scenes of the fantasy can be manifested in the real world. It’s playing with the idea you are something so much more fantastic than the everyday and a part of a mystical event in real life rather than simply a painting in a picture. Paradoxically body art such as tattooing is permanent. Tattooing can be a statement or a reminder of truth, likes or dislikes or perhaps a statement of identity, philosophy, or originality. Again it can also be a means of honouring the afterlife, acknowledging ones mortality and/or celebrating life and death. Many indigenous cultures paint or tattoo the body in ritual and ceremony, honouring and acknowledging the cycles of life, celebrating and mourning certain aspects utilising it to define a journey through life, belief systems, laws, identity, and belonging. The sugar skull face painting design originates from a Mexican tradition of honouring the dead. Children today are growing more fond of this kind of face painting and temporary tattooing.
Today we expand on all these streams of ancient tradition meshing them with modern meaning and it becomes a contemporary art form limitless and timeless that plays with the concepts of time, place, space, being and belonging. This is why we see a wave of hybrid art forms being embraced through youth and alternative culture and a return to tribal cultural values in younger generations. We are seeing a movement and series of artistic statements that suggest the body is a part of a greater being, that the body is mortal, that the body is impermanent and to be celebrated. Definitions of beauty are redefined by body artists and are not confined to the contrived and unattainable form represented through mainstream media, advertising and dominant discourse. Definitions of beauty are also different for each person. The works of body artists can act to break down traditional constructs of seeing and being, challenging fears of lack of conformity through the celebration of difference.
Many art practices today have become a fusion. Cross cultural and hybrid art practice fill art arenas with many interesting and spectacular forms. We see body art as bridging with performance, installation, digital and street art. There is a plethora of terrific new media surfacing from cultural precincts that emerges from small circles and underground happenings expanding into mainstream practice and popular culture. Often it is emerging youth arts playing a leading role in developing new directions in the arts that subvert already existing forms and practice. The possibilities are endless. That’s what personally draws me to body art. There is never really an end to any of the intriguing portrayals of beauty to create, or the stories we can tell and share, and body art demonstrates that communicating through art is not restricted to galleries, two dimensions, just walls or necessarily static. It invites you to engage with the body and read what your relationship is to the body. It awakens the viewer to see how they too are a participant and they too are a work of art.