Up to three times a week, for five to eight hours each day, Houston painter Rudy Campos labors over his masterpieces. Painstakingly wielding his air brush, Campos sprays layer over layer over his canvas – using up to eight ounces of material for each piece – creating intricate shading and textured designs in every shade from sky blue to Pikachu yellow.
And then, within a day or two, all that hard work is washed right down the drain – because Campos is a body painter, and his canvases are living, breathing human beings.
You've probably seen body paint before. Think of that Pink Floyd poster of the women with cows and skylines traced on their backs, or of Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey rocking painted-on bathing suits in this year's Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. But Campos's work is a little less mainstream: Through painting directly on his subjects' skin, Campos has transformed people into everything from Iron Man to “a giant crab creature” in the style of old-school monster movies, complete with latex claws.
“My type of body painting would be more special effects and science fiction,” said Campos, who says he is one of the approximately 30 body painters currently working in Houston, and who often paints people attending conventions in the area. For inspiration, he said, “I use comic books, cartoons, science fiction magazines.”
Campos, who runs Rcc Creations, creates between 40 and 60 body paints a year. That's not even counting the work Campos does for corporate events, where he often serves as a costumer or face-painter for Cirque du Soleil-esque performers, or the costumes he makes for performers and cosplayers, which range from latex headpieces to full-body superhero suits. (Right now, he's preparing a Spandex suit for a local performer whose act involves spinning and blowing fire.) Campos estimates that, while he works on many cosplayers and models, half of the people that he paints are just ordinary people looking to make themselves extraordinary for a night.
"Most of the time it's just people wanting to be the best and get the most attention at these parties," Campos said, adding, "Maybe going to a party, like a fancy dress party, a costume party, and again they just want to make a big splash."
Campos's body painting career started off as a side project. As a monster and science fiction movie addict growing up in Atlanta, he originally wanted to learn how to create “movie magic,” such as the fancy makeup and latex prosthetic pieces he saw in Creature from the Black Lagoon.
“I got into trying to do makeup on myself during Halloween,” Campos explained. “And my parents encouraged me, took me to like costume stores…I would just experiment on myself. And when I graduated from high school, I didn't want to do college, but my dad said I had to learn a trade. So he found a makeup school that would train me in special effects.”
When people started approaching him about doing their makeup for Halloween and photo shoots, they sometimes asked if he could paint their bodies too. “I think my first body paint ever was the Incredible Hulk, for some sporting event,” Campos recalled. While he didn't take any photos, he said, “It was probably just solid green and that was it…I was living in a hotel during school, and the guy came to me. He brought pizza and beer, and then he paid me to paint him as the Hulk.”
Now, Campos's operation is a bit more professional. He spent years teaching himself from books, learning from master body painters and providing special effects makeup for independent films. But when he moved to Houston, few local films had the budget to pay him. So he transitioned to instead painting for corporate events and individual commissions, and in 2010, he became a full-time artist.
There's actually very little real paint used in body painting. Instead, Campos uses makeup that easily washes off. When asked if the fact that his masterpieces always end up swirling down a drain bothers him, Campos said he's “almost become desensitized to it.”
“But it hits harder for the person that's paying for it,” he said. “They're like, 'Oh my God, I don't want to wash this off.'…They've got this high of, 'I want to go be seen somewhere.'”
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In case you're wondering, yes, many of Campos's body paint clients are nearly naked. Though he advises clients to wear whatever they feel comfortable in, they often choose to wear only underwear and (for women) nipple pasties. And that, Campos said, often leads to misunderstandings about his art.
“It's a big misconception that body paint is, I guess, a perverse art or it's very adult-oriented. I've had people over the years that have been like, 'That's pornographic.' No, it's not,” Campos said.
When he paints models in his at-home studio, Campos often tells them to bring a friend if they feel uncomfortable. “A lot of them have brought their boyfriends,” Campos said. “The boyfriends will be standing in the background, being very protective and very like, 'Oh my God, what's this guy doing?' And at the end they're like, 'Oh my God, this is so amazing. Oh my God, she looks so cool.'…So it's really cool to kind of break down those walls.”
That's the reaction that Campos loves – that moment when people realize that they are now art, and forget everything else.
“There's a lot of people who I've painted who feel self-conscious about their body,” he said. “But once they're painted, they don't think about whatever they perceive as flaws on themselves. They just see the art on them and they start taking on the role of the art, whether they be some like intergalactic space creature or some superhero. But when you paint someone, they take on the role that you've painted them. They forget that they're naked and they forget about their flaws.”