Live nude art


The first time local artist Jacob Figueroa attempted body painting he performed live at an art show, using improvised designs and technique to decorate several topless female friends in vibrant colors. The exhibition was meant to be a one-time attraction, but reactions to his experiment last January were so overwhelmingly positive that Figueroa, a local mixed media artist accustomed to painting canvases, was inspired to launch a body painting business, Virtual Warrior Ink.

vw ink will hold a live painting exhibition at 414 soundbar on march 21.

Figueroa, who goes by the name Jacob Alexander when he shows his art, and VW Ink partners Justine Naylon and Heidi Jean create custom body art for parties or private portraits, covering women from head to toe in water-based paint, glitter and gold leaf. Naylon and Jean style the model’s hair and apply makeup, turning the model into what Figueroa calls a full-body piece of “interactive art.”

Before ever making a brushstroke, Figueroa and his team spend time with the model and develop a plan based on her individual “aura.” A shy model might be painted in blues or purples while a more talkative or outgoing model might end up in shades of red or orange. All of the models are painted nude or wearing just a pair of thong underwear.

Currently most work is done privately in a makeshift studio in Figueroa’s downtown apartment building and documented in photos, but VW Ink is planning more live performances in the future. The company’s regular models are known as the “Ink Girls.” In addition to those models, Figueroa and his colleagues have painted women who planned to add the pictures to professional modeling portfolios as well as high school seniors looking for a graduation portrait quite different than anything they’d get at ProEx. A VW Ink calendar featuring photos of the works was released on March 14.

Technique is what sets Figueroa apart from other body painters. He does not rely solely on airbrushing, as other artists do, but instead applies the paint with paintbrushes, spatulas and other tools. He also creates his own paint, according to a secret recipe, and uses other materials such as glitter, rhinestones and gold leaf.

Painting on a moving canvas presents myriad challenges. Figueroa uses tape to delineate the body and streamline paint application. In addition, paint can suck moisture out of the skin, causing models to become quickly dehydrated. One of the models nearly fainted during a photo shoot.

Figueroa said has been accused of sexism because VW Ink currently takes on female clients only. He explained that painting male models is more difficult because men are generally more hairy, and thus harder to paint. In addition, painting men’s bodies can give rise to unwanted and potentially embarrassing physical expressions during the painting process. Nonetheless, Figueroa sees male body painting as his next challenge and is planning an all-male calendar for 2011.

Figueroa tries to accommodate suggestions from the models, but will often tweak their requests to fit into his artistic vision. One model wanted to be painted as a leopard. Instead of transforming her into a full-on feline, Figueroa incorporated a bit of leopard print into the design. Another model wanted a dartboard theme. The end result was colorful swirls floating on a black background.

“I told her I can make a dartboard,” Figueroa said, “But I’m going to make it the way I see it. My version of the dartboard.” Past inspirations have included the solar system, fire and water, and poker. One model was painted with hearts and diamonds and playing cards were arranged in her hair.

Being painted in nothing but a thong—or nothing at all—requires a great deal of confidence on the part of the model, and Figueroa is acutely aware of the sensitivity of the situation. “It’s a leap of faith,” he says. “You expose yourself and you’re hoping we’ll make you look like you’ve never looked before. And we will. But without trust, without confidence, it just doesn’t look as good.”

Jamie Thomas ( is a freelance journalist living in South Minneapolis.