Modeling 101: My Body is My Canvas


Body Modifications & ModelingWow.  What used to be territorial markings sported by prison inmates, inner-city gangs, and Marines has gone mainstream with a vengeance.  The extensive tattoos and body piercings that might once have seemed daringly anti-establishment have become a de rigueur fashion statement as common as shoes and socks.  Have we arrived at a new era in personal expression or are we just going through one of fashion’s periodic cycles?

There always comes a point when an extreme fashion statement crosses the cultural divide and either becomes entrenched as a new standard or reveals itself as a temporary fad.  For the past hundred years or so, the male executive’s uniform has had to be a suit and tie in dark, conservative colors.  In the psychedelic ‘60s, bright colors, turtleneck sweaters, and Nehru jackets made a brief, but spirited run at changing the dynamic, but ultimately died as quaint fads.  Although long, uncombed manes and scraggly beards didn’t make the cut either, the now fashionable 2-day stubble is vying for permanent recognition as an acceptable grooming choice.  Jewelry for the fashionable man has always been limited to a modest ring or two and a designer watch.  While Catholic men could wear a crucifix on a chain, it was hardly a fashion statement, and the horrendous attempt to turn the gaudy pendant-on-a-chain look into required fashion during the disco era mercifully died a quick and unlamented death.  Earrings may have been an exclusively feminine accessory at one time, but over the past decade the small, modest diamond stud in one earlobe does appear to have some staying power for the fashionable guy.

Fashion, by definition, is transitory, and determining whether a major shift is going to cut a wide enough furrow to create a lasting standard or simply be cast aside for the next wave of innovation can take a decade or so to determine.  At this point in time it’s hard to know whether the extreme body modification movement is going to permanently change the standards of personal expression or simply leave its current devotees with indelible reminders of a temporary cultural fad that can’t just be thrown into a box in the attic for the grandkids to chuckle over.   At the very least, it’s going to be an interesting development to watch.

What I can say for certain is that if you’re a heavily tattooed model, your skin art will have a limiting effect on your career; as a model photographer, I can tell you, it’s a concern.

Fashion and Commercial Modeling

Whether tattoos are a problem for the commercial market is at least partially a matter of degree—the delicate rose on the hip, the small star on the ankle, even a medium-sized “tramp stamp” on the lower back (amusingly referred to, by the way, as Arschgeweih in German, which translates roughly to “ass antlers”)—tattoos that are small and easily concealed by clothing are much less of a problem than the full sleeve or back piece that creeps over the collar line.  In general, tattoos are acceptable in inverse proportion to the difficulty of covering them up, and if they’re too big, too graphic, too… much… to ignore, you won’t get called for the job.  Even if the job is a photo shoot featuring tattoos as a theme, guaranteed your ink isn’t what the art designer had in mind.  What he wants is virgin skin that he can paint his own design on—one that’s consistent with the concept.

I can hear the protests already… “But Heidi Klum has a tattoo inside her wrist, Gisele Bundchen has a star on her wrist and a moon on her foot… what about Freja Beha, Daria Werbowy, and Anna Beatriz Barro? Allesandra Ambrosio, Petra Nemcova, Isabeli Fontana… all inked. Ehrinn Cummings has a tiny, discreet frog on her right breast and elephants on her butt, Carolyn Murphy has a giant koi wrapped from her hip to her back, and James King has fairies tattooed on her back …”  Yes, they do, all of them.  The other thing they have in common is that they’re all supermodels, which means they’ve made the transition from being anonymous clothes hangers to celebrities whose names are now bigger than the brands they model.

According to Forbes magazine, Gisele Bundchen made $30 million between June of 2005 and June of 2006.  She’s listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s richest supermodel,” with a net worth of $150 million.  If you’re a mid-level designer, you wish Gisele Bundchen would say nice things about your brand, and if she wants to sport a Mike Tyson face tattoo while she’s posing, you’ll nod your head enthusiastically while you’re writing her the check.  (Of course, you might also live to regret that largesse—see the legal discussion below.)

It doesn’t matter.  Unless you’re poised to dislodge Gisele as the world’s richest supermodel, the rules are different for you, as they are for every other hard-working fashion or commercial model in the world.  In the real world, bland is better for blending in, and if your skin has more color than the swimsuit you’re modeling, it’s a problem.

Why? Because body mods are all about self-expression; modeling is… not.   Modeling is about expressing somebody else’s concepts, showcasing somebody else’s clothing designs, make-up, or handbags.  Commercial models are a prettier version of the girl next door, and the girl next door doesn’t have an eyebrow piercing, nose stud, and cheek-bone rivet—all at once—at least not yet.  Her ears are pierced—which is expected—not plugged, which isn’t.

Similarly, fashion models exhibit their own peculiar kind of interchangeable beauty.  On a runway, they’re virtually indistinguishable, which may sound insulting to say out loud but which is real and by design.  The product is the star, not the model, and the degree to which the model’s singular beauty calls attention to itself is the degree to which the audience is not watching the product.  Models are considered clothes hangers in the business, and the designer does not want his/her creations to be upstaged by the hanger.

Unless you’re a supermodel and your super-name supercedes the product, anything on your body that makes you stand out as an individual is a liability.

Fine Art Modeling

You’d think that fine-art modeling would be different, and if you’re modeling for a painter, it might be.  A painter can easily rearrange body composition that doesn’t fit the concept, including turning your nose sideways if he’s Picasso.  Skin-art distractions are minor concerns if you’re already depicting the body as a collection of abstract cubes.  Drawing and painting are additive arts—if the artist doesn’t like what he sees on a model, he just doesn’t add it.  Omitting distracting skin compositions for a photographic artist, however, is a subtractive procedure.  The photographer has to capture whatever appears in front of him, and then apply extraordinary means to remove anything that doesn’t fit the artistic concept.

If a landscape painter doesn’t want the power lines that are crossing his subject to appear in his artwork, he just doesn’t add them.  If a landscape photographer wants to eliminate power lines, he has to either laboriously remove them in post or find another landscape that doesn’t have power lines in the first place.  It’s no different if your subject is a body-scape—it’s still easier to find a model without visual distractions on his/her skin than it is to remove them from the composition.

One of the more annoying presumptions I often read in heavily tattooed models’ portfolio comments is “I have a lot of tattoos, but you can always remove them in Photoshop.”  For me, that’s like reading, “I’m 40 pounds overweight, but you can always use Photoshop’s Liquify filter to make me thin.”  Sure, those kinds of alterations can be made, with varying degrees of difficulty and success, but why would I want to waste my time and creative energy accommodating a model’s personal decision to ignore industry expectations?  If you’re paying me to fix that in your portfolio, I’m happy to comply; but if I’m paying?  I’m going to look for somebody who made life decisions more consistent with her professional ambitions.

The reason it matters involves a subtle point about fine-art photography.  Unless you’re sitting for the photographer as a portrait subject, most fine-art modeling is going to immerse you in a universal theme or compositional study in which your individual identity is not only not important, but distracting if recognizable.  Any “artwork” on your person will read like a picture within a picture and draw attention to itself, particularizing you instead of allowing you to function as a more generalized compositional element within a larger theme.  If it’s a figure study designed to explore the universally recognizable curves and planes of the human form, anything on that figure that isn’t universal is a contradiction.  For the art photographer, having to work around somebody else’s art is like a painter starting a new work on a canvas that’s already half-covered with a previous painting.

Glamour Modeling

Glamour is the one modeling genre that does grant some leeway with body modification.  Indeed, there are fetish-based sub-genres that even feature it specifically.  Even in this genre, however, the more prominent and extensive the modifications are, the more narrow the opportunities become.   At some point in the race to cover your entire body with art, you stop wearing it and it starts wearing you.  What’s more important—the gallery wall or the art that’s on it?

The Legal Landmine

Finally, all of the genres share a problem with prominent body art that’s not usually discussed, but which is potentially worrisome.  It turns out that the more artistic your body art is, the more likely your tattooist is to protect his work as any other artist would—with a copyright—and to demand royalties for the use of his art in a derivative work.  There are cases winding through the courts right now in which tattoo artists have sued for copyright infringement because their work on a client’s body appeared in commercial applications without authorization.   You can read an interesting legal discussion here.  Given all the usage-rights hassles photographers already routinely deal with, who needs this developing mess?  If I hire you to pose for an image that I intend to sell or develop myself as a commercial product—poster, greeting card, T-shirt, etc.—the only person I want to have to pay to secure the rights is you.


So you got ‘em, but sometimes you wish you didn’t.  Is there any reasonably effective way of temporarily concealing a tattoo?  Most make-up artists would agree that covering tattoos is a complicated specialty with varying degrees of potential for success.   Ironically, many of the best cover-ups were originally developed as special effects make-up to create color effects for the movie industry.  Here’s a list of some products the MUA community routinely uses:

Ben Nye Neutralizers and Concealers


Cover FX

Derma Blend

Ferbs Cosmetics

Kat Von D

Skin Illustrator

Tattoo Cosmetics

The Temptu Dura line of make-up was originally developed as a way of airbrushing tattoo inks as temporary body paint.  Dura was used in 1998 to create a full back tattoo simulation for Absolut Vodka’s “Absolut Restraint” advertising campaign and was used most notably to create Rebecca Romijn’s blue skin in the X-Men movies.  Although it is intended to be applied with an airbrush, it can also be applied using the usual methods.

The Kett Cosmetics web site also provides some very interesting videos on techniques for applying their coverage products.

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One Comment

  1. venia November 23, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    You really should consider converting the content of that article to a you tube video. Would be a super watch.