Body painter Paul Roustan draws on his love of the human form, and society’s anxieties about it
by Ryan McDonald
About 10 years ago, Paul Roustan was at a party in Boston hosted by Boink, an erotic magazine started by a student at Boston University. Unlike most of the attendees, Roustan was on the job. Boink threw wild, issue-release parties, and the magazine hired him to paint the bodies of guests who wished to strip down and don an airbrushed costume.
A woman reached the front of the line, with a man lingering close behind. Roustan asked the woman what she wanted.
“I don’t know, whatever he wants,” the woman said with tired nonchalance, pointing her thumb at the man behind her.
“Paint my name on her tits,” the man said.
Roustan groaned. Apart from its aesthetic dullness, the suggestion was so macho and possessive that he half wondered if the woman was a prostitute and the man her john. But the woman insisted that whatever the man wanted was fine, and so Roustan complied.
Roustan, now a South Bay-based body painter and photographer, has recently finished his second book capturing his body painting, well, corpus. The book features photos of nearly 100 body painting sessions, and a forward by Hermosa resident Patti Astor, a founder of the original Fun Gallery in New York City, one of the first galleries to exhibit street art and graffiti. Although nudity is the first thing people may notice about his work, Roustan has come to realize that his artistic inclinations have not changed much since childhood.
His work does indeed have a certain lightheartedness; it comes with the territory when an artist’s composition, once completed, does not simply hang on the wall, but stands up, walks around and mingles. And his soft voice and gentle bearing do a lot to diminish the adults-only vibe of an art form typically associated with the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. (A poster for the show carries a parental advisory that the show features “artistic nudity.”) But while his recent shows have lacked the Saturnalian atmosphere of the Boink days, Roustan’s aspirations are as high-art as ever. After years manning an airbrush, he is still amazed by the ways that flesh and blood differ from canvas and stand.
Roustand, 37, started out at Boink doing editorial illustrations. At the time, getting paid to draw naked people seemed like the best possible job in the world. But when the magazine okayed his suggestion of painting the body of a model for an upcoming photo spread, he found something even better: drawing on naked people. He was nervous at first, but he displayed a natural ease that endeared him to both models and editors.
Boink decided to turn Roustan’s craft into an event. Painting many people in quick succession, most of them with no experience in modeling, could be frustrating, because it occasionally revealed the stubborn endurance of retrograde ideas about nudity and sexuality — see above — but it could also be deeply uplifting.
Late that night, a woman with large breasts was nearing the front of the line. A man came up to Roustan and, whispering in his ear, identified himself as the woman’s husband. He asked Roustan to do whatever he could to get the woman to let him paint her chest. His wife, the man said, was recovering from breast cancer, and he wanted something that would make her feel special.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’ll try. I’ll see what I can do. I can’t just magically make people get naked. Even though it seems like I tend to,’” he said with a self-aware laugh. “So I’m painting her neck, and just starting softly, getting her comfortable. She’s loving the sensation. She really wants to, but she’s just not sure. Finally, she takes her top off and lets me paint her. There were two dudes, good looking guys, probably about 25, behind her in line. They start saying, ‘Whoa! Oh, you’re so beautiful!’ And all of a sudden she starts coming out of her shell,” Roustan said.
The woman became more and more relaxed, and allowed Roustan to continue painting her. By the end, she had undergone what he called a “complete transformation.” But when I asked him what he meant by this, he said nothing about the shapes or colors he had put on her body.
“She’s got this huge smile, and she’s just radiating with incredible sunlight,” he said.
Someone to talk to
When Roustan was a kid growing up in Chicago, his mom would drop him off at the library while she attended night school. He would pass the time by grabbing any book he could find with naked humans, and copying what he saw. Then, to avoid getting in trouble, he would take the illustrations and turn them into faces before his mom or anyone else arrived.
He attended the Art Institute of Chicago and, after graduating, landed a job as a caricature artist at Six Flags Great America. In Roustan’s telling, the experience occupies a place in his artistic arc something like that of the Beatles’ stint in Hamburg: a grueling, early-career residency in which constant practice led to rapid improvement. He worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, producing images of guests with an expectation of rapid turnaround.
The park is in Gurnee, Ill., and required a train ride of about 90 minutes, each way. The lengthy commute, however, was also part of Roustan’s artistic education. He often found himself partnering with strangers in conversation, and he realized that he could get people to open up to him with relative ease. (He once shared a train with a man who had just been released from a 20-year prison sentence; when they got off at the same station, and no one was there to pick the man up, Roustan gave him a ride.)
Part of Roustan’s confessional attraction comes from his comfort with sharing details from his own life. Shadia Elise is a model who often works with Roustan. She’s worked with many other body painters, but in assessing what makes Roustan stand out, she described something akin to the bedside manner of a good doctor: the ability to make an unusual situation seem natural.
“He really connects with the person. He’s sharing stories about his childhood, about his family, about why this project resonates with him. For someone like me, working with Paul, I’m not trying to make conversation to fill in the blanks. There’s never a dull moment, because I love hearing stories about his wife and children. He’s an amazing father and husband, and someone who takes such joy in his personal life makes me feel comfortable,” Elise said.
Closeness with women has been a defining trait in Roustan’s life. His father worked so much that he says he often felt as though he were raised by his mother and two sisters. He and his wife Livia, who now have two daughters, have known each other since they were 17 years old. They met in art school, and after a few years in Chicago, moved to Rhode Island to be closer to her family. Once in New England, Roustan landed the job at Boink while getting a graduate degree at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Roustan quickly became a known quantity. He got gigs working at night clubs in the Boston area, and he eventually started doing shots for Playboy that sent him traveling across the country.
But his initial forays into body painting convinced him it could be more than just a way to make a living — it could be a way to make art. Several negative experiences with photographers making models feel uncomfortable convinced him that he needed to document his own work. In retrospect the decision was also about taking greater ownership of his creation: he said it felt odd to be displaying another person’s photos at gallery shows. So he expanded upon a photography class he took in art school. The result is not only the ability to handle all aspects of a session, but a side business as a surf and volleyball photographer. (He lets surfers know where to find shots he took by handing them a waterproof business card when they finish their sessions.)
Livia, who works as a manager for packing design at Mattel in El Segundo, said she was not surprised when her husband announced his intent to explore body painting. Even in the early stages, she was confident in his abilities.
“When he airbrushed caricatures, he honed the craft, the technical side. And I knew he would be competent at the conceptual side… I always knew he wanted to do art, rather than just the commercial stuff,” Livia said.
With its vaguely taboo subject matter and winking nods to pop culture, Roustan’s work seems made for social media. And indeed, some of his projects have gone viral: a video he did in which he painted wetsuits on four women and filmed their surf session has garnered more than 10 million views. But he has a complicated relationship with social media, both its business side and in its effects on how people see themselves.
In 2012, Roustan was preparing for the release of his first book. His Facebook posts of his body painting sessions were attracting fans, but also detractors, or “trolls” in modern internet parlance, who flagged them as inappropriate.
The negative attention came despite the fact that the images posted on Facebook were actually censored versions of content he was posting on Google Plus. He enjoyed success with Google’s social network, hosting live “hangouts” in which his painting sessions would draw 100,000 or more viewers, and he landed meetings with senior executives in Mountain View. But the network could never catch up in user count to Facebook, which responded to Roustan’s popularity with a series of warnings and suspensions. They eventually banned him from the site entirely. He lost an entire catalog of material in the process. (Facebook, he said, was still willing to take his money for an advertisement of his book.)
Today, he relies almost entirely on Instagram to promote his work. And the photo-tagging app also allows him to connect to future collaborators. One of those is model Sawyer Tasya. She was roller skating on The Strand in Hermosa one day, and saw someone taking pictures. Later, she scrolled through Instagram searching the hashtag “rollerskate.” She found herself and, through the photo, connected with Roustan.
Tasya eventually began modeling for Roustan, and he remains the only person who has ever painted her. He has painted her as, among other things, an astronaut, a pumpkin, and a Barbie doll. She describes their painting sessions as “ just acting silly.”
“Usually the theme is his idea. Sometimes I’ll come up with it. Sometimes it’s a collaboration. And sometimes, it will be 20 minutes before we get there, and he’ll say, ‘I have no idea what I’m going to paint,’” she said.
Tasya’s relaxed attitude about the process endears her to Roustan, but he said it is increasingly rare. In the past year, he has posted photos of collaborations to Instagram and, within seconds, models will contact him and ask that they be taken down. Such requests are especially disappointing for a man who is most proud of work that documents the candid and unguarded. (In a meta twist, he is collecting photos of models looking at their phones during shoots.) He usually complies, but the interactions make him realize that he is seeking something fundamentally different than some of the people he is working with.
“It’s the selfie thing: they know their favorite angles, they know what angle they think they look good in. I’m not trying to make people look amazing. I’m trying to capture something real. I don’t use anything unflattering, but it’s apparent to me that people are more consumed with how they look than they used to be. And it sucks,” he said.
Ironically, Roustan has also taken criticism from the opposite direction: that his work reinforces a narrow, normative idea of beauty, or that it is exploitative of women.
Roustan has heard more than a few #MeToo stories from models about other body painters and photographers, but the ones I spoke with complimented him for his sensitivity and spirit of collaboration. He considers himself a committed feminist, and occasionally engages with his critics on the internet. He says he is usually able to change the minds of the ones he talks to.
Roustan insists he is not concerned with these heady topics. It’s an exercise in escapism, he said, a focus on fun.
He may be hesitant to admit it, but Roustan’s embrace of the nude form has made him something of an iconoclast. His openness about nudity feels almost radical, even in an age when people feel compelled to share everything. This is clearest from his live painting sessions, which veer toward performance art. Attending one of Roustan’s shows for the first time, I found myself in conversation with one of the freshly painted models. It took several minutes before I felt comfortable looking her in the eye the way I typically would, while she seemed perfectly at ease. In a delicious reversal that I am sure Roustan is familiar with, but that I would not have anticipated until I experienced it, it was the person with clothes who felt embarrassed, and the person without who held the power in the exchange.
Moments like this reveal how Roustan exploits our taboos even as he rebels against them. Once, while working at the holography lab at the Art Institute of Chicago, a professor there received a piece of mail from Playboy, seeking contributions. The professor, Roustan recalled, was embarrassed, and asked Roustan to throw it out. Roustan took it home instead. And he still has it.
“That’s when I realized: This stuff doesn’t scare me. I’m not afraid of people knowing I like naked people, that I like drawing naked people, that I’m sex positive, that I like sex or whatever. I’m really aware that people are scared of what someone else thinks of them. I’ve never been that way. I’ve just never been that way.”
A Kickstarter site has been established to help publish Paul Roustan’s second book “Roustan Body Paint.” The book features over 100 photographs of his body paintings, many done in the Beach Cities, and a forward by Patti Astor, curator of FUN gallery in NewYork and former representative of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. “Roustan’s Body Paint” will be available for $60 during a book launch and Halloween exhibit of Roustan’s work at The Collective Gallery (formerly Resin) on Saturday, Oct. 26., 618 Cypress Ave., Hermosa Beach. For more about the book, visit kickstarter.com/projects/roustan.