Everyone’s seen Braveheart, right? All those Celtic warriors with blue paint? Very intimidating. Body Painting’s been around since the dawn of time. Most commonly, it’s found in indigenous tribes, passed down from generation to generation until it reached us in the modern times. Bodypaint has always been decorative, but it also served many other purposes. It’s often ritualistic, with the designs that are painted on being symbolic of a greater meaning. For example, the Woad dye shown in Braveheart served to terrify their enemies while also supposedly protecting them from the cold.

The Many Uses and Meanings of Body Painting

On the island of Taiwan, just off the coast of China, the indigenous peoples are called aborigines. They traditionally used tattoos as a sign of coming of age. The elaborate tattoos could cover up to and more than half of their faces, with additional bands of color being tattooed on arms, or legs. The ability of the tattooed to sit through the process without flinching or stopping showed the village elders, who were doing the tattooing, that the tattooed were ready to become mature adults, with responsibilities and duties. The tattoos also could serve as representations of an individual’s uniqueness, or they could represent the individual tribe’s identity, serving as clan identification. This practice was actually quite common amongst aboriginal people, including those of Australia and New Zealand. They could read the tattoos on each other’s bodies to determine where they were from.

In India, the custom of painting brides with henna has been around for centuries. Bodypaint can easily be used to highlight a woman’s femininity and beauty, and serve to attract a man. The beautiful designs are eye catching while also being organic and safe. Mehndi, as it’s known, serves many purposes, but primarily it is celebratory.For times of joy, such as weddings, or the ending of the religious month of Ramadan, mehndi serves as a visual representation of the good times, an ostentatious reminder to live in the now.

For South Americans, there were many natural dyes available. Huito, also known as the jagua fruit, annatto, and even wet charcoal all served to dye the skin. The fruit of the jagua tree produces a deep blue-black shade, similar to a permanent tattoo but without the painful application via needle. Its effects are long-lasting, so the hassle of re-application is lessened.

Body Painting in the Modern World

Though we’ve thrown off most of the old tribal ways and customs, body painting still survives as an artform. Many modern artists and painters have found in body painting a new outlet for creativity, and many cultures still practice their old traditions. For example, Indian brides are still henna’d before being married. So if you have any interest in bodypainting, give it a try! You’ll be communing with our ancestors, establishing a connection into the distant past.