“The skin is a canvas that lives, moves, breathes,” says body painter Mien Thao.
“It interacts with other forms of art such as photography and lighting. It changes depending on the emotional condition of the model. It’s warm to the touch and the texture of each canvas is unique to its owner.
“Some people have smooth skin all over. Some have birthmarks. Some have scars. Those scars have stories. There’s an amazing transformative power inherent to the act of painting on the human body. My models may be ordinary office ladies or sport instructors, but once the painting is complete, they become fantastic creatures of my imagination. Compared to human skin, plain paper, no matter the quality, is a dead and empty canvas.”
Mien Thao, 36, is head of the visual art department at Japan Beauty Art Academy (JBart Academy) and teaches makeup, body painting and special effects makeup. She has been “playing” around with body painting for six years. “I say ‘play’ because very rarely do I earn money from my work, maybe a couple of times out of a hundred. You can say it’s my hobby or obsession. I think obsession is the more appropriate word.”
The art of body painting has existed for centuries in India, Africa and the Pacific Islands, and has enjoyed popularity in America and Europe for the past few decades. In Vietnam however, it is still largely unknown with only a handful of active practitioners. Thao’s first encounter with body painting was through a series of art training courses for young instructors at JBart.
“I was curious and I’ve always liked drawing things. I started doodling on myself in my spare time: little words on the back of my hands, flowers on my palms, vines along my legs. It was all very playful.” Soon her passion for body painting grew past the doodling phase and Thao started looking for a model willing to bare all under her brush.
“I was lucky in that I lived in an artist community. Had I looked outside that community, well, my passion for the medium might not have taken off at all,” says Thao.
Her first model was a friend who was also an artist. They conducted the session in a small downtown cafe along with a dozen photographers who jumped at the chance to photograph a rare live body painting session.
“I drew vines and purple flowers. That first time was very simple, very rustic, and clumsy even. I had zero experience and knew nothing about composition, vectors, or even which paints are safe to use on human skin,” she recalls. Yet for all its amateurishness, the session was a success and soon she was a household name in the art industry.
A very fine line
According to Thao, body painting requires teamwork and a lot of tact. Most of her models have little qualms about posing nude, however, a careless word or a photo taken in the wrong light can ruin a good working relationship. Therefore she is incredibly fastidious when it comes to picking out a model and photography crew.
“Most of them are my friends. If they aren’t my friends, then after I’ve painted on their skin, they will become my friend. It’s difficult to remain detached from somebody who has seen you nude for six to seven hours straight.”
Even after carefully choosing her team, problems can arise from the model’s husband, boyfriend or family.
“Before they walk into my studio space, I let each of them know that they will be photographed and that we will keep the photo and post them online in art forums. There’s no sense in creating arts that cannot be seen. Sometimes that is an issue for the boyfriend or husband.”
Body painting inhabits a precarious area in Vietnam’s still-conservative society. For some it’s art, for others it’s soft porn. When asked about how her work is viewed outside the art community, Thao grimaces.
“There’s a very fine line between art and porn. It has always been that way for many other art forms, not just body painting. I think it’s getting better, though. Perspective can change over time, and more and more people, when they see my work, gasp and say ‘that’s amazing’ rather than frown and spit out ‘that’s disgusting.’ To me, that just means artists need to work harder to distinguish themselves as artists in society. It’s not easy of course, but on the positive side, this level of scrutiny is a filter that will let only the best and most dedicated artists come through.”
In Vietnam, body painting is not recognized as an art form. “No body painting artist, whether Vietnamese or foreigner, has been able to get their work published or been granted an exhibition license anywhere in Vietnam,” says Thao.
But she hasn’t given up. Thao is currently searching for sponsors for her first exhibition. She plans to hold it at the end of this year. “If I push it through… when I push it through, it will be the first body painting exhibition ever in Vietnam.”
Oi’s May 2015 cover is a body painting piece Mien Thao designed exclusively for the magazine.
* Images by Ngoc Tran.