what is body art? The skin as a living canvas, a different form of expression


Art has existed since the beginning of time and, just like everything else, it has evolved and new techniques and currents of artistic expression have emerged. Today you will learn what body art is and how it originated. don’t miss it!

Art on the human body is a way to convey a message and turn it into a living artistic work. Artists have decided to break away from traditional schemes and make body art.

In today’s article learn what body art is and what this avant-garde technique consists of. Also, get to know all the types of body art that exist, as well as its greatest exponents and their most important works.

Definition of body art

What we understand by body art is a conceptual artistic technique that uses the human body as a fundamental material base and expressive form. It plays with the form and in the service of the work; that is to say, the body becomes a work of art itself.

Body art is an avant-garde artistic manifestation that emerged at the end of the 1960s, seeking to reject the aesthetic values of traditional art. Also, body art loses the practicality of traditional works, as it is ephemeral and has a very short life span. Moreover, repeating it is extremely difficult.

Body art and its characteristics

After defining what body art is, we understand that the human body is the canvas.

It works as a plastic material, in which paint, makeup, tattoos, inks and perforations can be used to cover the model with different colors and textures. At the same time, elements such as clothes, accessories, hairstyles or other objectives can be added.

Fotografía de Parallel Vision Arte CorporalImage by ParallelVision from Pixabay

There are also more extreme types of body art such as scarification, scalpelling, mutilation and subcutaneous implants. These can cause permanent marks, as well as wounds that, at the same time, generate sensations and a particular experience to the spectators.
Following the same line, it should be mentioned that one of the characteristics of body art is sensationalism as an expressive resource. In addition, it creates a spectacle that, many times, invites the public to interact.
On the other hand, the fundamental aspect of body art does not always lie in the finished product, but in the moment of interpretation, since these works have the possibility of being complemented by movement. For example, in performance art or when captured in photography and/or video for later appreciation. Even, in many cases, the process of painting on the body is part of the work as a variation of performance.
Finally, it must be said that body art is an art of action. This means that the people involved, beyond handling painting techniques, must master the performing arts, body expression and space management.

Arte corporal en el rostro Face PaintingImage by Alexandr Ivanov from Pixabay

Now that you know what body art is and its main characteristics, here’s a little more about its history. don’t miss it!

History of body art

As antecedents of body art, we have several of Man Ray’s works and nude models. Under this context, new artists seek to innovate, producing works with the human body, known by the name of body art. The main themes were violence, the vindication of the body, exhibitionism, eroticism, the psychic, etc.

Although we know what body art is as an expression of modern art in the mid-twentieth century, this manifestation is an ancient practice that has been seen since the Paleolithic as part of prehistoric art.

You may ask yourself, how was body art born? In the cave era, humans discovered elements such as colored earth, animal blood, clay and charcoal, and began to use their dyes to decorate their bodies. In this way, they differentiated themselves from enemy tribes, identified the people of their clan and performed rituals.

In the same way, body art has been used as a cultural expression for centuries. In early civilizations, body and face painting, as well as tattoos, can be seen in African, Oriental and indigenous cultures of the Americas and Oceania. Many cultures maintain this practice to this day as part of numerous rituals.

The rise of body art was in the 1970’s and was very important in territories such as the U.S. and Europe. Today, body art has become a very famous art technique that represents a particular type of artistic work with a very dramatic and emotionally charged approach. Likewise, there are new modern adaptations of body art such as nail art.

Foto de Nicolas Postiglioni Pexels Arte corporalPhoto by Nicolas Postiglioni on Pexels

Types of body art

Body Painting

Body painting is a very ancient practice. Tribes used the colors of clay, charcoal, fruits and plants for ceremonies and rituals. To this day, we can still see this type of body art in traditional cultures and in communities that live far away from the modernity of the city.

For example, African peoples such as Fungor, Nyaro and Kau performed body and face painting on a large scale. In these cases, they were used on men between 17 and 30 years of age; therefore, it served to differentiate each age group. Another example is various Native American tribes, who decorated their bodies with drawings and symbols expressing different meanings.

In Western and modern societies, body painting has become a very popular art, used as a decorative medium for special events such as carnivals and as part of the costumes for different shows. It is also used as a piece of art at exhibitions and conventions.

The motifs used in body painting are very varied, as they depend on the creative skills of the artists. However, some of the most common themes are the reproduction of animal figures and landscapes, as well as the characterization of mythical or science fiction characters.

Foto de Ivan Siarbolin Body Painting PexelsPhoto by Ivan Siarbolin on Pexels

One of the earliest displays of body painting was in the 1960s, when makeup pioneer Max Factor Sr. used body painting to promote his latest line. This body art technique caused a stir in the industry and drew a lot of attention from attendees at the launch event.

Today there are multiple body painting techniques: latex, sponge, airbrush and brush. On the other hand, there are also many types of paints to use with this type of body art. For example, water-based, alcohol-based, latex and oil-based and cream body paints.

The choice of the canvas to execute the work is very important. This form of body art requires that the body has the right characteristics to best suit the concept in the artist’s mind to get the result they are looking for.

On the other hand, one of the biggest disadvantages of body painting is that the art has a very short duration on the body; therefore, it requires photography and video to be immortalized. However, despite its short lifespan, the sessions of this body art technique are very extensive.

Foto de Dazlle Jam Body Painting PexelsPhoto by Dazzle Jam on Pexels


According to Oxford Languages, tattoos are drawings engraved on a person’s skin by introducing coloring substances under the epidermis. This type of body art has been used for centuries; even since the Neolithic era.

Prehistoric mummies have been discovered with this body art technique in areas of the body such as the back and knees. According to what has been studied, they would be to distinguish that they were hunters. Likewise, tools made with pointed bones have been found that are assumed to be for tattooing.

Later, these permanent designs to decorate the body of people have been seen in cultures of ancient Polynesia. Actually, the word tattoo (and English “tattoo”) derives from the Polynesian word “Tatau”. The drawings were among the most elaborate of the time, featuring geometric figures. The motifs of the body art were mainly erotic and sexual; however, in the case of men, they also had religious and magical motifs.

Today, with the advance of technology, this type of body art has evolved a lot. Today there are different options of very sophisticated tattoo machines that provide much more comfort, flexibility and precision to the artist, as well as the ability to make much more elaborate and colorful tattoo designs.

If you are a fan of tattoos, like us, and would like to learn more about this body art technique, we recommend the online course Introduction to Tattooing for Illustrators with Anastasia Rodriguez, professional tattoo artist. Learn the proper procedures to create amazing tattoos on people’s skin.

Foto de Ivan Samkov Tatuajes PexelsPhoto by Ivan Samkov on Pexels

On the other hand, in Indian culture and in Maghreb countries, we can see temporary tattoos with henna ink. This is an ancient body art practice performed on women during religious celebrations.

Henna is an extract of the alenha plant. The ink is obtained from crushing the leaf of the plant and then compressed in the form of a tablet or prepared as a powder. There are different shades of henna for body art, ranging from orange and reddish colors to brown and black. For its application, essential oils are used and it is applied with a needle on the prepared skin.

Foto de James Ranieri Tatuajes Arte corporalPhoto by James Ranieri on Pexels

Face Painting

Face painting, as well as the previously mentioned types of body art, is a very ancient practice dating back to the Paleolithic era, as it was used to identify important individuals in communities such as chiefs and shamans.

Also, to this day, we see face painting as part of the cultural practices of various African, indigenous and Latin American communities .some examples of traditional face painting are the Mexican catrina makeup we see in the celebration of the Day of the Dead and tribal designs to differentiate age groups in African villages.

Fotografía de Genaro Servín Face Painting Arte corporalPhoto by Genaro Servín at Pexels
In modern times, we call face painting “cosmetic makeup”. We see this type of body art in fashion, photography, television, film and theater. Nowadays, this technique is very popular and accessible, as the beauty industry has expanded in mainstream media and taken over social networks.

Foto de Nadezhda Diskant Face Painting Arte corporalPhoto by Nadezhda Diskant on Pexels


Body piercingsor piercings are the insertion of jewelry into the skin. This body art technique was born in India thousands of years ago and remains today as a traditional practice in the culture, where decorative elements and small animal bones were placed. They believed that these applications on any part of the body would defend them from tragedies and evil spirits.

Later, this type of body art was adopted by the Pirates. The belief was very similar to that of the Indians, but they used rings of materials such as silver and gold, as well as only preferring to have the piercings in the earlobe.

Foto de Digvijaysingh Rajput Piercings Arte corporalPhoto by Digvijaysingh Rajput on Pexels

Traditional piercings were not done with anesthesia, as pain was an essential part of this ritual that ensured people’s protection. However, nowadays , there are different methods to perform this body art technique such as piercing guns. In addition, today we have knowledge of the sterilization of tools to protect us from infections. In the same way, jewelry has evolved and has become an art in its own right.

There are artists and models who don’t want to commit to body piercing; therefore, they resort to fake piercings. This method of body art consists of using a special glue to adhere the jewelry to the skin, leaving a very realistic looking result with no permanent markings.

Foto de JJ Jordan Body Piercing Arte corporalPhoto by JJ Jordan on Pexels

Performance art

Performance art is a conceptual art that is characterized by its free expression. This type of body art reflects a total rejection of all traditional schemes of beauty and logic. It also promotes change, spontaneity, contradictions, provocation, impact and imperfection. Some examples of modern performance art are living statues (street art).

One of the most recognized artists of performance art is Marina Abramovic. One of her most famous works is “Rhythm 0”, first performed in 1974. Here is a video where Abramovic explains what it was about and how her performance was developed.

Rhythm 0 Marina AbramovicImage: tate.org.uk

Mehndi Body Art

A tradition from India and other Middle Eastern countries that has gained popularity around the world is Mehndi body art. This type of body art, which resembles tattoos, is done with a paint-like henna paste. So what is henna and how does it work?

Henna is a small tree whose leaves contain a dye that colors the skin, like turmeric or beet. However, in the case of henna, the dye molecule (lawsone, its main active ingredient) binds to the keratin in the skin becoming a permanent stain.

The henna paste remains on the skin for several hours. When removed, it leaves a stain that darkens over the next 24 hours. Mehndi body art can last for one to two weeks or more.

In India, Mehndi body art is considered a form of beauty enhancement, much like makeup or jewelry.Although it can be worn on a regular basis, it is used on special occasions, such as weddings. But, in our case, there’s no need to wait for that to happen, because what we want is to inspire you for your next body art action.

How long Mehndi body art lasts on the skin depends on the quality of the henna paste, how long it stays on the skin, the area of the body decorated with Mehndi and the skin type.

Henna dyes the upper layers of the skin, so as the skin naturally exfoliates or loses cells, the Mehndi body art fades. Mehndi tends to last longer on areas that generate more heat, such as the hands and feet, but if you use harsh soaps the Mehndi body art fades sooner.

In the United States, Mehndi body art is often offered at trade shows and, increasingly, in beauty salons. Mehndi body artists are called “henna tattoo artists.”

You do not need a license to be a Mehndi body artist, as is the case with tattoo artists, since no needles are used. Anyway, if you are interested in dabbling in the fascinating world of Mehndi body art, we leave you with a video of henna body artist Nimisha, in which she creates a beautiful henna tattoo on a woman’s shoulder and back.

Nail Art, body art on nails

Body art is so broad that it extends to nails as well, the latest in our list of body art types. Nail Art, or Nail Art, includes any form of decorative body art applied to the fingernails and toenails.

Materials such as nail polish, UV gel and hybrid coatings such as Shellac are used. in addition, this type of body art includes processes such as nail marbling in water and stenciling (an artistic decoration technique in which a stencil with a cut-out pattern is used to apply paint), as well as artificial extensions.

Today, the body art that can be displayed on the nails is limited only by the imagination. In other words, nails are a huge canvas on which creativity can be expressed in any way with a wide range of options available.

Although nail art is usually seen as a symbol of the evolution of the beauty and pharmaceutical industries, this type of body art dates back to ancient Babylon, around 3200 BC.

Likewise, nail polish originated in China in 3000 BC. Apparently, the first polishes were made from a mixture that included beeswax, egg white, gelatin, vegetable dyes and gum arabic.

In Egypt, members of high society painted their nails reddish brown with henna. In the 9th century, nails were dyed with perfumed oils and polished or buffed.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, people polished their nails using tinted powders and pastes, and buffing the nails until they were shiny, explains the Hagley platform.

As you can see, the different types of body art can be traced back to practices that date back to the beginning of mankind. So it’s important to know where these habits of expression through body art come from so that body artists can transform them into completely renewed concepts.

Human nude photography

The naked body has never ceased to inspire photographers since the invention of photography in 1839. Related to installation art, this type of body art is exemplified in the work of American photographer Spencer Tunick (1967), famous for his surreal photographs of large numbers of nudes in unimaginable public places.

Fotografía de Spencer Tunick Arte CorporalImage: spencertunick.com

Another exponent of “body photography” is the German-born artist Helmut Newton (1920-2004), whose dramatic black-and-white photos achieved near-permanent status on the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines during the 1980s and 1990s.

Grace Jones y Dolph Lundgren 1985 Revista VogueImage: vogue.com

Another interesting fact provided by the portal AllAboutPhoto, is that of Hippolyte Bayard, a French photographer and pioneer in the history of photography who was the first to stage a nude body…. actually his own!

The self-portrait entitled The Drowning Man was made in 1840, less than a year after the invention of the technique. Because of its ironic title, this image can be considered the first staged photograph.

Autoretrato El Ahogado de Hippolyte Bayard 1840Image: epdlp.com

Technology and the art of the body

From the 1990s to the present, many body artists have turned to technology and the Internet to find new ways of expressing their work.

Some feminist artists, such as Laurie Anderson and Maureen Connor, have developed their artistic practices to use the body as a way to explore both the female condition and the effects of technology.

Other younger body artists have filmed and photographed their bodies and uploaded them to their social networks. Artists such as Petra Cortright and Amalia Ulmann use Instagram and YouTube to explore their female self-presentation online in a manner similar to that of their feminist body art predecessors.

Contemporary artist Moon Ribas, who considers herself a “cyborg artist,” implanted a chip with a seismic sensor that allows her to sense telluric movements occurring in the earth through vibration. In her performances, she allows these vibrations to guide her improvised dance.

In the following video, The Creators Project visits the Konvent, a monastery turned avant-garde art space in Spain. In the company of Neil Harbisson, who also received electronic implants that allow him to hear colors, Moon and Neil demonstrate their unique skills in a body art of the future.

We hope you found this article as interesting as we did, now you know what body art is and what its characteristics are. Also, you already know how body art was born and some of the millenary practices that use it as an expression of their culture.

Body art rejects the traditional aesthetics of art and breaks with the schemes to use the human body as the fundamental basis of the work. All major societies have had at least one tradition of body art. There are many ways of being human, and many different visions of beauty. Sometimes signs of identity can be uncomfortable to others, but they have a very deep meaning.

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