If you’ve ever been to one of Burlington’s main live-music venues — Nectar’s, Club Metronome, Parima — chances are you’ve seen Dinash and DJ Frank Grymes in action. Grymes, aka Drew Leiphart, spins hip-hop-infused electronic music while his partner, Dinash, aka Kadina Malicbegovic, sprays paint on giddy models. The tag-team performance artists, dubbed the Human Canvas, have become ubiquitous, showing up at festivals, dance clubs and even kiddie birthday parties, spinning and spraying and trying to demonstrate that art doesn’t have to be consigned to walls.
But why do people want paint slathered all over them? WTF is up with this craft? And how did it come to Vermont?
Though its proliferation in Burlington is a recent phenomenon, body painting is a centuries-old art form. In India, mehndi — a washable henna tattoo — has been part of marriage ceremonies since ancient times. Throughout Australia and New Zealand, indigenous people still use clay and pigment to paint themselves for ceremonial purposes. Here in the U.S., body painting, unless it’s part of military camouflage, is purely a novelty.
Malicbegovic, who has an undergraduate fine-arts degree from the University of Vermont, started painting “breathing canvases” in 2005 while looking for ways to make her own art more interesting. Her first exhibit in town featured wine, cheese and painted ladies.
“Everyone was, like, ‘Whoa, what the fuck is this?’” Malicbegovic says. “That was it, and I was, like, People are digging it. I want to try again.”
She met Leiphart, 29, shortly after her body-painting debut, and they’ve been performing steadily ever since. Malicbegovic says their ascension as performance artists has been “slow motion,” which is fine by her.
Malicbegovic, 30, came to Vermont in the mid-1990s with her family after they were forced to flee Bosnia during the war. Along with artistic talent and a penchant for blue language, she brought with her a European sensibility about the human body. Naked bodies aren’t offensive; they’re meant to be celebrated, she says. Body painting, she insists, is the ultimate vehicle for that appreciation.
Freedom and liberation are the motivators that enable most of the models to remove their clothes and get painted by a stranger. The couple’s email inbox is always filled, Malicbegovic says, with messages from individuals seeking the sensation of getting painted.
“It’s edgy,” she says. “You know they’re naked, but you can’t see it.”
“It doesn’t feel like nudity,” Leiphart adds.
The Human Canvas works like this: Before an event, Malicbegovic selects models to paint. They aren’t necessarily skinny, young or traditionally beautiful. Some are men, but most are women. Malicbegovic says she can’t deal with painting over body hair.
Sometimes the shows have themes, such as “Enchanted,” in which models were painted to look like fairies and nymphs. Occasionally, the setting requires Malicbegovic to prepaint some of the models, depending on the intricacy of the job. Then Leiphart spins music that fits the theme or venue. “I try to pick the best song that will rise up the atmosphere,” he says.
Once the models are in place, Malicbegovic covers their nipples and other lady bits with special pasties. Not everyone wants to be completely nude, and not every venue will allow complete nudity, even if it’s shrouded by a coat of paint.
Malicbegovic’s toolkit is basic — airbrushes with compressors, stencils, sponges and paintbrushes. The paint she uses is FDA approved and smudge proof. Some models try to keep it on as long as possible; others wash it off soon after Malicbegovic is finished. People are free to do with her art what they want, she says. In fact, she prefers the inherent evanescence of body painting to the permanence that comes with coloring a physical canvas.
The body-paint models aren’t exactly blank canvases, Malicbegovic says. They often have their own ideas about what they want splashed on their bodies. Recently, she wanted to paint a psychedelic scene on a model, but the woman asked to be painted into a corset. Malicbegovic capitulated because, she says, “She can’t wear my imagination or my creation if she doesn’t have it in her.”
While Leiphart insists the work isn’t meant to be erotic, many models can’t help but get turned on when the shots of paint hit their bodies. This is part of the allure for Malicbegovic. “Their nipples get hard,” she says. “They’re excited and scared, and everyone always says they need a shot [of alcohol].”