Body Painting

Published: 29th March 2012
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There is something quite enchanting about body art. Intricate and delicate motifs, interlocking geometric forms and tiny flowers characterize the art in its most traditional form. Practiced for centuries in the Middle East, India and Africa, body art was linked with the traditions of marriage, birth and death. It is quite possibly one of the oldest art forms known to man.
Ancient cultures made a ritual out of henna painting, one of body art’s most traditional forms. For the women who practiced it, it was a beautiful and enriching experience. An ordinary pair of working women’s hands could be transformed into a work of art; dusty, path-worn feet could be made to feel exotic and sensual. Women painted other women, often in groups, and became close to one another as a result of the experience. Body painting was a way of bonding, becoming part of the sisterhood.
Over the years body painting has continued among the cultures of the east and the third world. By the 1960s and seventies, however, it had reached the west. This was the time of Flower Power and the Peace Generation. The younger generation were taking over the world and they were looking east for inspiration. One of the ideas they found was body painting – it was breathtakingly beautiful and astonishingly easy to do. Western women were soon creating their own hybrid designs, drawing for inspiration on the many photographs of India and Africa women that were published at the time. Indian culture, in particular, was everywhere. Students covered their walls with posters of decorated women.

Humans are the only species on the planet that choose to systematically change and manipulate their appearance. Whether it’s through temporary changes such as painted nails, lipstick or a fashionable hairstyle, or more extreme body modifications such as piercings, tattoos
and implants, no human society has ever left its appearance to genetic inheritance alone. From supposedly primitive cultures to the most advanced, human appearance has always been created by a combination of cultural influences, as well as biological factors. With the recent increase in the popularity of body modifications, you’d be forgiven for thinking tattoos, piercings and so on are modern creations. However, the reality is quite different. What’s really happening is a cycle of discovery and rediscovery that’s been going on for thousands of years, as one generation or culture discovers the body modifications of another and claims them as their own.


Tattoos are the best-known body modification to ever hit mainstream culture. Some estimates claim that one in six North Americans has at least one tattoo, and it’s likely that you know at least half a dozen people with inked skin yourself. But the practice actually pre-dates the bible; in Japan, for example, tattooing for both spiritual and decorative reasons is thought to have existed for at least 10,000 years. In 1991, a well-preserved natural mummy was discovered in the Ötztal Alps, near the Hauslabjoch pass on the border between Austria and Italy. ‘Ötztal The Iceman’, as he became known, was calculated to have died in 3300 BC, and yet had a total of 57 tattoos, including a cross on the inside of his left knee, six 15cm-long straight lines on his back, and many other tattoos on his legs and ankles. Other tattooed mummies have also been found with designs featuring animals and monsters that covered large areas of their bodies.

And it’s not only established body modifications such as tattoos and piercings that have been practiced for centuries; many body mods that are currently coming into fashion – notably scarification and branding – have their historical roots in tribal communities. Occasionally these body modifications were simply a pragmatic act – a way for members of one tribe to differentiate themselves from members of another – but sometimes there was a deep cultural significance attached. Body modification was often the means by which tribal customs and rituals were enacted during symbolic ceremonies, with rites of passage such as coming of age often including a body modification to represent a new rank or enhanced status. As a result, many tribes have separate forms of body modification for men, women and children to denote life stages. In some African tribal cultures that practice scarification, a child’s first cut may be given shortly after birth, with more added later to denote maturity. Scarification has also been used to indicate status and responsibility; in some tribal cultures, when a woman was willing to be sacrificed, she was considered mature enough to be a child bearer.

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