Photograph by Heinz-Peter Bader, REUTERS
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Artists paint a model's body during the annual World Bodypainting Festival in Austria.

Photograph by Heinz-Peter Bader, REUTERS
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At the World Bodypainting Festival, the Human Body Is a Canvas

Body painting has been a medium of expression since the early days of humans and is increasingly being recognized as a fine art form worldwide.

In the late 1990s, Austrian Alex Barendregt stumbled across 1970s-era fashion photographs of German model Veruschka covered head-to-toe in body paint. He was intrigued, but his research failed to turn up any major events that showcased the art form. So in 1998 he decided to stage what he calls Europe's first body-painting festival.

Two decades later, body painters from over 50 countries are preparing meet in the south Austrian town of Klagenfurt for the 21st annual World Bodypainting Festival on July 12. This year, participants will compete in 12 categories ranging from brush and sponge, airbrushing, and team body painting to special effects makeup and installation art. The event will also include a music festival, food market, and a week of workshops before the main competition weekend begins.

“I think transformation was always something human, transformation of the body [and] decoration,” Barendregt told National Geographic. “You can express really good feelings, colors, emotions in an art form that is also moving and screaming and dancing.”

This year, Barendregt is especially excited by the participation of native communities. A group from Easter Island will be attending the July festival to compete with the traditional body painting techniques their communities have been using to tell stories for hundreds of years.

Body painting has been a medium of expression since the early days of humans. In more modern times, artists have dipped their toes in the art form and it has periodically gained the attention of the fashion coterie. Body painting has recently taken a more mainstream turn. With the help of media attention garnered by festivals like this one, body painting has become the subject of a reality TV show, Skin Wars, and is increasingly being recognized as a fine art form by museums and galleries around the world.

Classically trained artist Cheryl Ann Lipstreu, a third place champion at the 2017 World Bodypainting Festival and contestant on season two of Skin Wars, says that body painting found her. After learning of the medium, Lipstreu became a model for another artist before deciding to buy her own paints and try out the human body as a canvas for her work.

“It speaks to me because your canvas has a heartbeat,” Lipstreu says. “I love the connection with people and I love to be able to give people joy with my art. So when they see themselves fully, completely head-to-toe painted in art, it’s such a feeling of euphoria. I know what that feels like from having been a model.”

After the 20th anniversary of the event last year, Barendregt says he realized that the festival has been able to help create an art movement that really wasn’t there before. But his dreams are hardly complete.

“I would now like to create this network, not only within the body painting industry, but with other artists and art institutions,” Barendregt says. “My vision would be [to create] an Art Basel for body painting artists.”

This story was updated on June 26 with a new photo.