Body Painting

Body painting is a form of body art that can transform a person into a spirit, a work of art, another gender or even a map of a sacred place. This form of body art can emphasize visual appeal, express allegiance or provide a protective and empowering coating. Protective body paints often feature in the body art of initiation rituals, weddings and funerals -- all occasions of transition and of spiritual danger. People everywhere adorn the living with body art, and some also use body paint to treat the dead. To make body paint, pigments composed of plant extracts or mineral clays and powders can be mixed with vegetable oil or animal fat. Throughout history, the substances used for body paint have been important trade items. Ochre, camwood, cinnebar, and kaolin were traded throughout Asia, Africa and Europe.

Henna, used as a temporary skin dye, was widely traded in the Muslim world along with patterns and designs used to apply it. Commercially manufactured body paints, now available in a wider palette, may be adopted for their visual appeal but they rarely take on the symbolic significance of natural paints and dyes.


In some cultures, a smooth, unmarked skin represents an ideal of beauty, but people in many others see smooth skin as an unfinished, unattractive surface. Scarification body art, also called cicatrization, alters skin texture by cutting the skin and controlling the body's healing process. The cuts, which are treated to prevent infection and to enhance the scars' visibility, leave visable incisions after the skin heals. Inserting substances like clay or ash in the wounds results in permanently raised weals or bumps, known as keloids. Substances inserted into the wounds may also result in changes in skin color, creating marks similar to tattoos. Cutting elaborate and extensive decorative patterns into the skin usually indicates a permanent change in a person's status.

The designs often have symbolic meaning, and the same patterns may be used on textiles, woodcarvings, ceramics, and sculpture. Because scarification is painful, the richly scarred person is often honored for endurance and courage.


Tattoo body art involves puncturing the skin with a sharp instrument and inserting pigment through the outer layer, the epidermis, into the second layer, the dermis. Tattoos are intended to be permanent; only recently have expensive laser techniques allowed people to remove them. Tattoo body art and techniques have varied with different cultures. Traditional Polynesian tattooists tap a needle with a small hammer, while the Japanese work with bundles of needles set in wooden handles. In the West, the electric tattoo machine has revolutionized tattooing, expanding the ease of application and the range of colors and designs. Besides being decorative, tattoos send important cultural messages: a commitment to some group, an emblem of a rite of passage, even a fashion statement. Tattooing has been used to indicate high rank in some societies, rebellion and low status in others. Despite numerous religious and social injunctions, tattooing has been a popular form of body art throughout the world.

Body Piercing

This form of body art is decorative only insofar as it allows the body to hold certain kinds of ornaments, which are inserted through the skin in a way that permits healing around the opening. Most commonly pierced are the soft tissues of the face, but many peoples, past and present, have also pierced other parts of the body. Ear, nose and lip ornaments, as well as pierced figurines, have been found in ancient burials of the Inka and Moche of Peru, the Aztecs and Maya of ancient Mexico and in graves of central Asian and Mediterranean peoples. The act of piercing body art is often part of a ceremony marking a coming of age, a change in status or the accession to office. Ornaments may be restricted to certain people or worn only on certain occasions. Because ornaments can be made of precious and rare materials - ivory, gold, jade and precious stones such as diamonds and emeralds -- they may signal privilege and wealth.

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