Explore New Orleans

My New Orleans: Artist Craig Tracy

The award-winning body painter discusses the state of the art and city's influence on his craft.

Craig Tracy is a man of firsts. In 2006 the fine-art body painter opened the world’s first gallery devoted to the craft right on Royal Street; earlier this year he wrapped his second season judging the popular body-painting competition TV show, "Skin Wars," on the Game Show Network, which he also co-produced. Sharing the spotlight with the likes of actress Rebecca Romijn, drag legend Ru Paul and fellow artist Robin Slonina is nothing new for the New Orleans native, who has judged similar events on four continents and garnered numerous awards of his own. 

Body painting has moved from freaky fringe element to full-on, fine-art form.

As a culture we continue to become more liberal-minded and accepting of differences. Body painting is one of those former taboos that has been de-demonized. Little bit by little bit, things like my gallery and other fine-art body painters artists globally have really helped to skew the public’s perspective of it just being a sexualized art form.

"Olympian" by Craig Tracy
Tracy's silver "Olympian." (©Craig Tracy Gallery)

You helped jumpstart the contemporary Royal Street movement post-Katrina. How has the French Quarter art scene evolved since then?

Art has trends, and some of that is reflected in the works carried in the galleries. But for the most part I don’t know if there’s ever been as many galleries on Royal as there are now; it is filled with art. As we get older, the art gets younger. I’m an example of that. Post neo-folk art is not my thing—whatever that is—but the 30-year-old hipsters love it. So there’s always going to be a constant supply of new.

How long does it typically take you to complete a work?

About eight hours for the painting on the body and, if there is a background involved, that can add on another four to 10 hours. It just depends.

Which piece was the most complicated to create?

The Fiat I did for ESPN magazine’s “Bodies” issue. I made a car out of 16 bodies, and it was insane. There’s a link on my website to a video of the how it was created.

Craig Tracy's Fiat bodypainting
How many bodies can a Fiat fit? Try 16. (©Craig Tracy Gallery)

In addition to the show, you’ve judged body painting competitions around the globe. What’s the most outrageous you recall?

I’ve probably judged more body painting competitions than anyone else in the world. I’ve judged on four different continents, so it’s hard to communicate what all I’ve seen, but the caliber continues to increase.

Have you ever been painted?

I have. There’s a piece called “Brother” in my gallery; it’s of me and an artist from England. She painted me, and I painted her.

How was that experience?

Being on the other side of it was incredibly easy. You’re literally just lying there, though it’s not sexy to say that. Ultimately I’d prefer to not think and work any day of the week. [Laughs] Hey, I’m from the Big Easy.

Which of your images is your favorite?

The cheetah with the all-white background, called “Speed.” It communicates what I do in a way that I love. It’s also one of my oldest images, so it’s sort of near and dear to me. I’ve watched that image go all over the world; it’s been wonderful.

"Speed" by body painter Craig Tracy
"Speed," one of Tracy's most popular works. (©Craig Tracy Gallery)

You got your start air-brushing T-shirts at local malls and face-painting during Mardi Gras. How else has New Orleans influenced your work?

New Orleans has allowed me to be me. The city created me, and the French Quarter shaped the way my brain thinks about art. When I would travel I would always look for the French Quarter of whatever city I was in—and I was always disappointed. I’m used to seeing artists out in the street, showing their stuff. New Orleans has shaped me through its Carnival traditions and its acceptance of people to be who they are. For instance, if I were from Chicago, a great city for art, I don’t know if I would have opened the first gallery in the world for body painting. It just felt like I could here.

Rebecca or Ru—who would prefer to paint?

Physically Rebecca Romijn is one of the more statuesque, semi-perfect creatures. But I love working with Ru Paul; he’s so smart and wonderful. I only saw him be a bitch for one minute during the whole time we were filming.

Where to next?

I just got back from New York City Bodypainting Day, which I helped organize, and it was amazing. I go to Atlanta the first weekend of October to judge Living Art America, the largest body painting event in the U.S. I travel around a good bit, but New Orleans is where I am...and want to be.

"Sunshine" by body painter Craig Tracy
"Sunshine," featuring models Stephanie and Baby Presley. (©Craig Tracy Gallery)