Last Saturday night, three security guard-flanked red dragons traipsed through the Flamingo casino floor, dutifully playing part in our city's now all-encompassing Chinese New Year celebration. But unbeknownst to almost all present, the real human parade was happening two floors above, where the first North American Body Painting Championships was in mid-swing. Neither the full-on Burning Man bacchanal nor Olympian culture contest that different parts of the name imply, the NABPC simply sought to congregate those of a growing pop-art form ready for some legitimacy.
Las Vegas has more than its share of subcultures devoted to displaying the nude form — but certainly none of them are so shamelessly and explicitly nonmercenary.
"We're not rich people," said Canada's Lucie Brouillard, explaining the significance of a seemingly modest $5,000 first prize.
Body painting, many liked to emphasize, is arguably the oldest art form humanity has, but undoubtedly the modern iteration got its start in the '60s of Andy Warhol and Peter Max (Google Goldie Hawn on Laugh-In). While it might seem challenging to transform an art largely financed by carnival face-painting gigs into a respected medium, that's less a concern in cultures outside the U.S. — particularly Austria, which hosts the 13-year-old World Bodypainting Festival (attracting 25,000-plus spectators), the Netherlands, Korea and, yes, even a country where you'd think no one ever gets naked, Canada.
Sorry, nude, not naked — several artists and judges are quick to dispel impressions that this is about sexual titillation, especially since we're in Sin City.
"Everybody thinks that it's trashy, that it's a T&A show," says Dallas model Abigail Bower. "It's not, it's all about the art."
And for the artists, the here-today/gone-tomorrow nature of the work is actually an appeal.
"All that matters is doing it," said local artist Orlando Lara. "It's a practice of letting go, like the Buddhists doing sand painting. I love that."
"You connect with a person every time in a different way," said Russian artist Natasha Kudashkina. "It's like therapy."
At least six of the approximately 50 entrants were locals (as were many models), but others came from as far as Switzerland, New Zealand and Israel to participate in separate brush-and-sponge and airbrush categories over the three-day meet. Laguna Beach's Star Shields boasted of body painting for 30 years; Las Vegan Ethan Jacobs first tried it a week prior. What quickly emerged is how many subcultures are melding here, from the tattoo and piercing types to fine artists, animators, makeup stylists and special-effects geeks. Oh, and of course ecdysiasts.
"I like attention," model Bower admitted; in contrast, Winston-Salem, North Carolina's Kristin Snider claimed, "I'm kind of a prude — my first time being painted was the first time anyone saw me nude." Then there's Boulder City hairstylist Britney Bonsack, who was talked into being painted only the prior weekend: "I like to try new things," she giggled.
And though many were local, there were surprisingly few "Vegas model" types — in fact, on the first day there were at least two retiree-aged women for whom the term "Rubenesque" would be overly flattering. Of course, they were balanced by those like UNLV's Amber Bugg, 19, whose parents clearly made a special arrangement with God. One Michael Cera-looking kid actually traveled from Wichita, Kansas, to be painted by his aunt and uncle. There were several as well whose height would dwarf the average supermodel; one lithe Amazonian, transformed into a mythical Pegasus, has just signed a long-term lease in my dream state.
Though working methods varied — from brush-and-sponge user Kudashkina, who claims to work free-form each time, inspired by her model, to Michael Rosner, airbrushing layer upon layer of stencils into elaborate technotronic patterns — each artist was given six hours a day to paint, followed by a private judging and a public exhibition. That's at least eight hours of standing naked for the models, after which it could take 40 minutes of showering to get clean. "I took three showers and I still couldn't get it all off," said Bower after the first night. Hair design, headdresses, nails and even colored contact lenses played a larger role than might be expected (one girl got her hair lacquered into a sort of palm tree, complete with mini plastic flamingo underneath).
Apparently there's an addiction to the process which outweighs the thought of someone sticking a paintbrush between your gluteus and maximus. "Once you've started you cannot stop," said Austria's Victoria Lao, who may emerge as one of the medium's first star models (she was painted all three days by top names). "I like being a moving piece of art," added Snider. Said Bugg: "I've done bridal modeling. This is a lot easier."
The energy level was higher on the last day, as was the creativity. And the temperature — even the models held towelettes under their pits to keep sweat from smearing paint. Though the final presentation ran very late, it was worth the price of a Red Bull to discover that most of the models were dancers too, performing choreography ranging from Balinese ritual to robot moves, showgirl tease, MMA, nunchuk demonstrations, contortion and mime. One artist even sang her model's accompaniment a capella.
In the end, winning might have seemed beside the point, especially since both category toppers, Lucie Brouillard and Alexander Hansen, were longtime international victors. Most of the painters seemed to just enjoy the process and interactivity — there is clearly an international fraternity in this relatively miniscule subculture. "It's kind of a family meeting … There is competition, but it's friendly competition," said Switzerland artist/model Christian Schorr. One could argue that certain undeniably strong artists were strangely missing from the top fives — Andrea O'Donnell, Natasha Kudashkina, Lawren Alice, Birgit Moertl, Carolyn Wood, your work is stunning — and there was some grumbling, too, about politics, lax rule enforcement, bad promotion. Still, "Nobody's stabbing each other's neck to get up there," said Las Vegas latex painter Richie Figueroa with a gentle laugh.
While holding the BPC in Vegas might have hurt as much as helped the event this triple holiday weekend, even the Rick James impersonator taking snapshots on the Strip could see how this could build into something spectacular for Vegas, perfectly merging the interests of the Downtown arts scene and our blessedly horny tourists. See you next year.