In the ’90’s I was known for a blacklight body painting act I developed with a dancer and performance artist called Sue Doe. It was a sort of Pollockian erotic ritual of pouring, smearing, hurling, and squirting fluorescent paints. Glowing colors would drip over contrasting hues in an ever-changing visual explosion, choreographed to music. Our performance was featured on HBO’s magazine show “Real Sex“, as part of a segment about the neo-burlesque Blue Angel Cabaret of New York. Occasionally I still run into people who remember seeing us on TV. Click here to see excerpts from a version of this performance we did at one of my art openings.
So we got a bit of low-level fame out of our act, but it was a little too wild and messy for the mainstream stage and we never made much money from it. Eventually Sue moved out of town. For several years I was known as the blacklight body paint guy and got gigs at parties, nightclubs, and promotional events, painting models or painting on the people attending the party, before I too tired of the nightclub life – dealing with drunks and taking the Subway home at 3:00 in the morning deafened and crusted in paint. This post is a look back at some of the photos that survive from that episode of my career. Some of the painting was done in challenging conditions, but I’ve refrained from retouching the pictures to make the painting look slicker than it did in reality. In no particular order, here we go:
Not all my blacklight body art was of the splash and smear variety. Often my painting was inspired by my intuitive sense of energy patterns within the body. In this approach, I have no preconceived design, but just let the brush follow the form and the feel. The result is a spontaneous image of the body electric.
A blacklight is a light source that emits mostly wavelengths too short for the human eye to see. It’s like a visual dog whistle – the frequency is outside our range. You might see a dull violet glow, but otherwise it’s pretty dark. Fluorescent pigments, the kind used in blacklight paints, are made from naturally occurring minerals that have a special property: when stimulated by light of any wavelength, they emit light of their own characteristic wavelength. Returning to our audio metaphor, imagine the dog whistle causing a string to vibrate a note lower down on the scale.
Fluorescent blacklight-activated pigments are also commonly known as DayGlo colors (actually a brand name), since even in daylight they glow in their own hues more brightly than any ordinary reflective material could. Under powerful blacklights, the paint is as bright as neon.
Blacklights and Dayglo paints became very popular in the psychedelic ’60’s, and the effects tend to evoke memories of acid-rock discotheques, scary carnival rides, and vintage science fiction.
The paints behave quite differently than regular paints. The range of colors is limited, and there’s no white. Whatever doesn’t fluoresce, including bare skin, becomes a dark background for the paint.
Here’s an odd effect, below. The sensor on this early digital camera was actually sensitive to light in the blacklight range, but the lens focused those wavelengths on a different plane than the visible light. Thus the paint appears in focus, while the face underlying it appears out of focus. I find that a beautiful accident.
For the slathering performances I used cheap poster paint. It looks great but dries crusty. Cosmetic body paint is a lot more comfortable to wear on the skin. Even in the cosmetic paint, the fluorescent pigments tend to be a bit clumpy. I tried to make the most of this peculiar texture in the painting.
Under mixed lighting, the paint still glows effectively as long as the visible light doesn’t completely overwhelm the blacklight, though the black background effect on the skin is lost.
Orange is probably the most intense of all the fluorescent colors. It looks positively fiery.
Below, an unpainted strip up the spine creates a dark shape. The dancer’s sinuous moves turn this negative space into a snaky object moving against a bright background.
A camera light meter is useless in figuring out the proper exposure for blacklight effects. In the film photography era, you pretty much had to take a guess. The photo below, taken during a performance, is a long enough exposure to give motion blur.
The painting here almost obliterates the surface texture of the body. It looks like a black velvet painting by a hypercaffeinated expresssionist.
This one’s a good example of the neon sign effect.
Below, the shape of the lower back of a seated model becomes a kind of vase out of which a phoenix rises.
Sometimes I imagine that if we could see hidden dimensions, bodies would look like this for real – bodies of light.