A white sheet of paper, a brick wall, an empty stage. A blank canvas comes in many shapes and sizes for an artist. For Sam Chun, a human figure is where she begins the art of body painting.
“Usually I work at big events, like a club night or a promotional event. So we get a couple of models in bikinis and we have to paint them in the company colors and paint the logo on to them,” Sam explains.
“Other days we’re hired to attend children’s birthday parties and paint all the kids’ faces. It’s all the typical stuff like butterflies, fairies and Spiderman. If you’re at a little girl’s party and you have plenty of pink glitter you’ll be fine,” Sam laughs.
Generic childhood favorites aside, occasionally Sam gets to let her imagination run wild without the constraints of what a customer needs.
“When I painted Ludi Lin (Lù dī Líng 露滴灵) (model and actor) I had free reign. By spending time with him and talking to him I got an idea of his personality and then I came up with the idea myself. I did the whole thing myself, his make-up, hair, everything was me. I’m proud of that,” she grins.
Ludi Lin painted as Sam’s vision of a fiery superhero. Photograph by Mitchell Masilun
“He’s currently auditioning for a role in the new Transformers (Biànxíng jīngāng 变形金刚) movie, so he inspired me to paint him as a fiery superhero with an edge.”
It’s not all fun and games though. A full body such as Ludi’s can take around 3-4 hours and a design with more intricate detail can take even longer.
“It’s hard sometimes,” Sam sighs. “There are long days that are often stressful and it takes its toll on your body because you have to change positions to paint different body parts. You go from on your knees to standing, then back again. Suddenly you realize you’ve been working for over six hours and haven’t eaten or drank anything the whole time.”
English-born Sam was, until recently, teaching with Disney English (Díshìní yīngyǔ 迪士尼英语) in Beijing, whilst body painting at weekends. Now after three years, Sam and her colleague Nina Griffee are in the early stages of taking their new business, ‘Face Slap’ to Hong Kong, whilst leaving a small team behind to continue the work in Beijing.
One of new company Face Slap’s shoots. Photograph by Mitchell Masilun
“I was doing body painting as a weekend job to start with, but I’ve just learned how to do make-up which has made things take off a bit faster. It’s getting to a point where I can start to make a living from it,” Sam explains.
“So I’m heading to Hong Kong with a hope and a dream… and some body paints,” she laughs.
On top of the body painting and make-up, Sam makes jewelry and Nina designs clothes, meaning that for some photo shoots, they can design the entire thing from scratch.
Although the popularity of body painting is growing, it has not always been well received in China.
“There’s a taboo over body painting in China because the models are never wearing much, maybe just a bikini, or some people do it wearing nothing over their breasts,” Sam explains. “Some people see that as a bit crude and too intimidating so I always at least cover them with something like a bikini top or pasties (adhesive patches to cover nipples). Unlike Sports Illustrated, (Tǐyù Huàbào 体育画报) who this year made an entire shoot of models wearing nothing but painted on bikinis.”
Body painting isn’t exactly your typical day job, so how does one stumble on to a career path like this?
Sam started her vocation with a part-time job in the UK painting children’s faces at corporate events during weekends, and was simultaneously studying to be a learning support assistant in primary schools.
“Then a few years later a friend asked me to paint the full bodies of performers for a club night, so it all started from there,” she says.
Sam and Nina painted Osric Chau’s wounds for the Return of the Dragon remake
“I decided to go to Thailand to travel then I saw an advert for China and thought ‘Okay, China, let’s go!’ I planned to stay for four months, I met Nina and three years later here I am.”
In a career where no two days sound the same, can it really feel like work?
“The best shots are the ones when you’ve built an idea from scratch and you can contribute to every element. You always feel really proud of the end result,” says Sam.
“But you don’t often get paid for those jobs. They’re just for art’s sake because most days people pay me to do a job as they want it done. Not many people are going to pay me to do a full body or crazy face paint for their wedding day,” she laughs.
Sam and co-worker Nina also helped with the special effects for a short movie clip for the Vancouver Film Festival (Wēngēhuá Diànyǐng Jié 温哥华电影节). Sam painted on the wounds and bruises in the 60 second remake of Return of the Dragon, which displays yet another branch of the body painting art. The video can be viewed at the bottom of the blog.
The following photographs were taken by David Salazar at the Kempinski and Lufthansa anniversary event.