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Face and Body Painting in History and Culture

In today’s modern society, face painting and body painting is usually associated with gaudy Las Vegas shows, Mardi Gras parades, Halloween costumes, high-flying circus performers and indigenous tribes highlighted in magazines like National Geographic. But did you know that face painting and body painting has a long, storied history that stretches back thousands of years, to the most ancient civilizations in human history? In fact, historians have found evidence that the ancient Neanderthals even engaged in face and body painting as a form of personal expression.

What’s particularly interesting to note is that the practice of face and body painting can be found on a global basis, on every continent of the world. It’s not something that can be defined as “Western” or “non-Western.” Civilizations and tribal societies in Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia have used face and body painting for a variety of purposes. Of course, these early pre-modern societies didn’t use consumer face paint sets or body paint sets - they used paints made from natural pigments found in plants and fruits.

Historically, there have been two primary purposes of face painting and body painting. One of them was to heighten the celebration around very specific ceremonies, such as weddings, funerals, and certain rites of passage for young males and females. When you see images of indigenous tribes painted all over, it is often because they are preparing for a big event in the history of their tribe, and taking big steps to make the event special.

The other major purpose has to do with an art form of an entirely different type - the art of war. Face paint, when combined with tattoos or piercings, could provide an exaggerated, ferocious look - particularly important when you’re engaged in hand-to-hand combat with nearby tribes. Combine that face paint with body paint, and you also have a valuable source of camouflage. Imagine wandering through the Amazonian rainforest painted over with the low-budget version of a face paint set or body paint set.

So how did face painting and body painting enter the cultural mainstream in Western society? Historians point to the World Fair events of the 1930’s, when it became commonplace for nude models to appear in body paint, as the launch of the modern trend of body and face painting. By the 1960’s, face and body painting was assimilated into the hippie and psychedelic movement. And, of course, who can forget the blockbuster Vanity Fair cover of Demi Moore in 1992, when that body painting cover caused a firestorm of controversy, fame and celebrity? (Just Google “Demi’s birthday suit”) Today, events like the famous Burning Man festival are places where you might see adults hanging out in body and face paint for days at a time.

Now, face and body painting is so common that many street festivals around the world have artists who will paint children so that they resemble their favorite cartoon characters. Face and body paint sets can be found in nearly any art supply store. Famous events like Comic-Con in San Diego often have adults parading around in body paint. And Austria has been hosting the popular World Body painting Festival every year for the past 21 years. That’s just more evidence that one of the world’s oldest and most ancient practices is still fresh, modern and vibrant.

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