In New York City Body Painting Day, nude bodies became artists’ canvases

Across from Pret a Manger near Union Square Park, Nicolette Baryshoff stayed still as an artist painted an open blue eye on her sternum Sunday. It was about 88 degrees and a crowd of people gathered around them. But the heat and the crowd didn’t bother Mrs. Baryshoff. Not the fact that she was naked.

“It’s a very Zen experience,” she said, as paparazzi took pictures from behind police barricades. “This is my catch.”

Ms. Baryshoff, 38, a writer in Los Angeles, was among 60 people who paid $100 to have mostly nude paintings by 40 artists during Body Painting Day in New York City, a public art fair held annually since 2014. This year’s payment was the tenth — and final, according to the event’s founder, Andy Golub, an artist. He said he ended it to focus on other projects for his organization, Human Communication Arts.

Nig Durden, 31, came from Philadelphia to model after learning she might not get another chance. “You should be naked in public and not get caught,” she said, standing near a table holding bottles of Gatorade in a vibrant shade like turquoise paint covering the right side of her body.

Mrs. Durden has been in the body painting business for about seven years. Although she did some gigs in artists’ studios, she said she preferred to paint in public so she could observe a wide range of reactions. Some passersby blushed on this year’s Body Painting Day and hurried past as artists decorated people of all shapes and sizes. Others are a nymphomaniac or photoshoot.

“Art is supposed to be subjective,” said Mrs. Durden. “Some people might feel offended. Some people, this might be right up their alley.”

Mr Gollob, 57, started using cadavers as paintings in 2007 after another artist introduced him to the body painting model. He said he found leather a canvas like no other, in part because it belongs to the living, breathing people whose personalities often influence an artists final design.

In 2011, he was arrested and charged with violating public appearances laws for sketching a nude model in Times Square. counts it was later dropped. Soon after, he said, other artists started asking him how to paint the body in public. He added that the body painting day is always organized in coordination with the city, and is a way for artists to practice without fear of police interference.

“The end product is great, but it’s the whole process that I really wanted people to see,” said Mr. Gollob.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the event had its critics. When Body Painting Day was held in a park in Brooklyn, in 2019, some people showed up protesting that naked bodies should not be painted in an area with children, said David Pomo, who has modeled for multiple models.

Mr. Pomo, 62, a Brooklyn attorney, said he believes such complaints invalidate the distinction between nudity and sexual exploitation. “This is not a sexual event,” he said, as an artist painted his bald head during this year’s festivities. While he was talking, another model with delicate white flowers painted on her fringe ate from Sweetgreen’s takeout bowl.

Body art is probably among the oldest forms of art, said Bella Follin, an artist and gallery owner who teaches the history of body art as part of a training program led by World Body Painting Association. Temporary paint has been used to commemorate rites and rites of passage by the Kayapo tribe in Brazil, by Aborigines in Australia, by many tribes in Africa and by Native Americans.

Throughout the 20th century, body painting became more commercial as some began to use it as an expression of freedom or provocation. In the 1960s, artist Yves Klein ordered women painted in blue to be pressed onto canvases in front of a live audience. Women with painted bodies began appearing in the pages of magazines, including Playboy, Sports Illustrated, and Vanity Fair, which featured Demi Moore with a bodysuit painted over her naked body on its 1992 cover.

Fred Myers, a professor of anthropology at New York University who specializes in Aboriginal groups in Western Australia, said the practice’s many adaptations — and its commercialization — could easily skew into appropriation territory. “You take something upon yourself as a kind of play that, to other people, is a very dangerous part of who they are,” he said.

Alex Barendrigt, director of the World Body Painting Association, which has held its own festival in Austria since 1998, said some of its members have criticized Body Painting Day for treating body painting more as spectacle than as an art form.

The event in Austria, the World Body Painting Festival, is organized as a competition: artists present their portfolios and compete to win prizes in different categories. Body Painting Day did not usually select artists based on their work, instead the decision was based on the reasons given by the artists for wanting to participate. (The artists on the day of the body painting, unlike the models, were not mandated to be present.)

Mr. Golub said he was told several times that his event was a publicity stunt. He added that Body Painting Day has always been more about creating an artistic community environment than displaying works of the highest quality.

Veronica Eber, 18, a first-time participant in this year’s event, said she had never painted a body before. She attended Body Painting Day to expand her skill set before beginning her studies in art at Carnegie Mellon University this fall.

Ms. Eber said she enjoyed the challenges posed by an unusual painting: “It’s much more difficult because you have to consider the curvature of the human body,” she said.

She used a narrow brush to trace triangles across the torso of Katherine Stein, 70, who is a first-time model at this year’s event. “I thought I would be more disappointed,” said Ms. Stein, who lives in New York and works at an art firm. “It’s a positive body experience.”

Once all of the models’ bodies were painted, the colorful group marched to Washington Square Park, passing diners at outdoor tables and people waiting outside a veterinary clinic along the way.

After posing for a group photo in front of a statue of George Washington on horseback, several models climbed to the upper level of a double-decker bus bound for Brooklyn, their body art slightly smeared with hugs and hours of wear.

Among them was Mrs. Baryshoff, who had a hand painted around her waist, and an eye on her chest. She, like many models, has attended courses prior to Body Paint Day, and said one of her favorite parts of the event was surprising people in a city that many thought they’d seen it all.

“It’s the last one that’s still kind of broken,” she said. “I love being someone’s ‘just in New York’ moment.”