Art has been one of man’s medium for expressing who he is, where he’s been, his affiliations and his status in numerous cultures for centuries. Just as the canvas is to the painter and the clay to the potter, the body is to the body artist. In ancient civilizations the marking of the body has had different meanings from showing ownership by the Greek, Roman and Celts to being associated in some with magic. In the 1600’s men would place self inflicted cosmological symbol tattoos at precise astrological moments to alter ones flesh and destiny. Of course with the church being very prominent back in those times these body marking were not sanctioned by the Catholicism and Protestantism which made it more taboo than anything.
In our times body modification, tattoos, piercing and body painting still have inherent meanings in some cultures but for the majority of Americans it’s more of a way to advertise one’s fantasies, moral values or just a way to feel outlaw-ish if that’s even a word! Marshall McLuhan put it best in saying “all advertising advertises advertising”, which to me relates to this topic in the way that body artist are merely advertising their thoughts through painting on bodies but they are advertising their abilities through painting to advertise themselves as well.
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Schildkrout, Enid. "Inscribing the Body." Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (2004): 319-344.