When Suzanne Lugano paints nearly nude models, she feels as if she’s the one who is exposing herself, expressing her emotions before the world.
Whenever possible, she works in public, creating unique artwork before crowds of onlookers. The works last only a few hours before they disappear. The only things remaining of the art are a few photographs and a rainbow of colors swirling down a shower drain.
Lugano is a body painter, working on models at public art events and nightclubs. The fleeting nature of the work is a big part of the appeal for her.
“I absolutely love the impermanence of body painting,” she said. “I’m a strong believer that art is nothing more than a shared emotion. We need to work through it, share it and release it, so you have room for more.”
Lugano has been body painting for 12 years and face painting for 20. She has been an artist most of her life and began painting on people when she was asked by a friend of a friend to do face painting at a children’s birthday party. She decided to give it a shot and discovered she enjoyed the experience.
“The kids were super happy about it,” she said. “It was addictive.”
A few years later, she moved to Las Vegas from New York and was inspired by the burgeoning body painting scene in town. She watched downtown artist Dray Wilmore working in the style of one of his canvas paintings on a model and saw that it was an interesting way to express oneself and share the process publicly. One of the models he was working with let her try it out, and she was hooked.
While working with Cirque du Soleil’s Cirque du Monde, a program that teaches circus skills to at-risk youths, she was gifted her first set of body paints. Her paint kit has steadily expanded through purchases at art supply stores and conventions. Now she’s so well-established in the field that some companies give her body paint to field test.
“It can take a bit of money to get your kit together,” Lugano said. “Like any art supply, it can get expensive, but you wouldn’t paint a wall with a fork. You’ve got to use the proper materials.”
Lugano typically begins a piece by applying base colors with a sponge. She usually brings out details and line work with a variety of traditional bristle brushes. She recently expanded her technique with airbrush after working on the Syfy reality show “Naked Vegas.”
“I wasn’t one of the four principals, but I’m proud to be a staff member on the show,” she said. “I was on camera for all six episodes.”
She jokes that she is the Where’s Waldo? of the show.
“It’s a drinking game,” she said. “Who can spot Suzanne?”
Like any reality show, there’s a lot of work between the shots by people who aren’t on camera much. Suzanne was delighted to work with talented body painters and makeup artists to compare techniques with them.
“I’m living my dream,” she said, “I used to see all these fantastic and amazing artists, and I wanted not just to know them but to have them know me as a peer, not just a fan. It’s a whole new ballgame.”
Lugano has become something of an evangelist for body painting in Las Vegas, co-creating the annual Vegas Face/Body Painting Jamtacular Expo and co-hosting a First Saturday event at The Arts Factory, which usually draws several body painters. She also co-founded the Las Vegas Body Paint League, which meets about once a month for events where painters and models get together to work on pieces.
“This gives everyone a chance to get creative in a quieter environment without a million eyes on us,” she said. “We get to hone our skills and talk to one another about the work.”
For the models, it’s a chance to be a part of the art.
“It’s not hard to do, and when you’re done, you feel good,” said April Mae, who has been a body paint model for two years. “You’ve got a great art piece on yourself, and you get to model it.”
Mae isn’t concerned about standing in front of people wearing just a G-string, pasties and increasing layers of paint as the work progresses.
“I was a little nervous the first time, but that was just that time,” she said. “I’m very free-spirited.”
The first painting Mae was a part of was a bustier.
“There was all this lacing, and there were rhinestones on the front,” she said. “It was a really great piece to start with.”
More recently, artist Alexander Sky painted her with what she described as an urban Pokemon look.
“It hard to describe. You’d have to see it, but it was amazing,” she said.
Mae has begun to do some work she enjoys at car shows, where she was painted to match a car on display.
“I really enjoy it,” she said. “Right now, I’m painted about three or four times a month, but I’d like to do it more.”
Lugano loves her models and recommends that body painters try their material on themselves, so they know what they’re putting the model through. When she was just starting, she saw artists using acrylic paint on models, which she knew from experience feels uncomfortable when it dries on your skin.
“It’s bad for the environment and bad for the skin,” she said. “It’s not a canvas; it’s a human being. You have to be aware of things that annoy them. I’m so honored by anyone who allows me to use their body to paint on. It’s such a gift they’re giving me.”
Lugano and Oregon artist Gina Niemi are set to teach a class in face and body painting from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Feb. 22 at Blackbird Studios, 1551 S. Commerce St.
“I’m going to teach Intro to Face and Body Painting 101, and Gina’s going teach how to do fast, festival face painting,” Lugano said. “I’m going to show them all the tips and tricks of what I do from start to finish. If you never body painted before and you want to know what it’s like and what to use, this is your class.”
Lugano plans to gear the class toward the level of the students. She’ll have materials available to work with but encourages people to bring their paint kits.
“If people have supplies, I’d love to see them and explain how to use those particular things properly,” she said. “Some people like one brand over another, and there are different qualities of paint.”
After the class, Lugano will refocus her energy on planning the Jamtacular, scheduled for Aug. 8-10.
“South Point is our sponsor now, so the event will be there,” she said. “We’ll have big-name artists from all over the country, vendors and the Body Paint Throw Down, which is a two-day competition now. Friday is for novices, and Saturday, pros will compete for over $1,000 in cash and prizes.”
To see more of Lugano’s work and to inquire about the Feb. 22 class and other events, visit bodyartbyzann.com. For more information about the Jamtacular, visit vegasjamtacular.com.
Contact Paradise/Downtown View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4532.