Early this fall, I binge watched all the Skin Wars seasons on Hulu. Though I had never met Rachel Deboer in person, I definitely knew who she was and have some Maui friends in common with her. So, being a fan of her body painting art, I was stoked when I saw her ripping up the dance floor in early November at a DJ Mark Farina show at Lulu’s. That night, I didn’t have the guts to walk up to her and fan-girl on her, but I did when I came across her face painting table at Maui Comic Con the following day at the Lahaina Cannery Mall.
Deboer is an internationally recognized and award-winning body painting artist. She won 3rd Place in the Semi-Pro Professional category at the World Body Painting Festival in Austria in 2008. She also won 5th Place in UV Body Painting in 2012 and made the Top 30 In The World list for the Professional Brush & Sponge category at the concurrent festival in Austria in 2016. She’s renowned for her work with blacklight body paint, as well as for the mystical characters she creates. Deboer also has a degree in Theater Performance from the University of South Florida.
“Body painting is an art form unlike any other,” DeBoer says. “It’s been around since humans have been here. Body painting political and social justice issues on women’s bodies seems to me like one of the most revolutionary act we can do.”
At Maui Comic Con, though weaning a small kine headache from the previous night, I found the strength to say hello to her. It was awesome, and she was very cool. We discussed body-painting, I asked her how a person becomes body-painted and we exchanged information.
Then, on Nov. 8, 2016, tragedy struck. Donald Trump won the presidency. In the history of my life, I do not think I have ever experienced the combination of sadness, depression and shock that I felt on the days that followed. Though I know that more than half of America felt the same way, it wasn’t until I reached out to Deboer via Facebook Messenger that I began to heal my feelings of political hopelessness and presidential PTSD.
We began a series of messages regarding ideas for what type of body painting I’d like to do. At first, I just wanted her to paint something that would be a good addition to her professional portfolio. But once we discovered that we were both irate about the new President-Elect, we decided to do a political body art piece. We met in person, discussed a plan, set up meeting times and it was on.
Many women and men feel insecure about their bodies and being naked in public, and I was no different. Okay, I’ll admit that I was actually a little bit mortified. I kept asking myself questions like, Is my body okay for this? Are my boobs too small to be body painted? Even more negative and weird nervous brain chatter fled through my mind in the days leading up to my first body painting session. To put it mildly, I was scared.
Back in 2015, we published a feature article about Deboer’s experience on Game Show Network’s Skin Wars. She was a cast member on the second season, vying for a $100,000 prize amongst a group of her peers–world renowned body painting artists.
Since her experience on Skin Wars, Miss Rachel Deboer has been consistently painting human canvases in many different mediums and forms; full body painting, face painting, pregnant belly painting and live human art installations. In the most recent months (since Trump’s election, in fact), Rachel’s art has begun to take a new direction which she calls “Political Body Art” and “Body Art Activism.” The main issues that DeBoer focuses on are discrimination against women, discrimination against immigrants, LGBTQ marriage equality rights, pro-choice for women and even the abolition of the electoral college.
“I’ve noticed that there is a lot of control and suppression around the human body, especially around women’s bodies,” Deboer says. “With the extremely nasty, cruel and shocking disregard for women in this election, and normalization of the president’s comments about women, I felt kicked in the gut by our country. The current government aims to control people–control our behavior, who we marry, where we work, what we buy, our healthcare, our education, etc. Literally drawing the issues concerning our country and our globe on women’s bodies was the only obvious antidote for this oppression.”
Deboer strongly believes we need to get back to a “whole-istic” view of our place here on this earth. “Instead of raping and consuming the earth for its resources with a greedy acquistion of things, be a steward of the earth and champions of each other’s rights,” she says. If she can encourage people to have more compassion and tolerance towards all, then Deboer believes that her job as an artist is done.
For our first body painting project, I went to her home in Kula. I was nervous, but to my surprise getting body painted wasn’t scary at all. After spending a few hours topless while she painted my chest, I discovered that she wasn’t just an intensely passionate artist and woman, but also very comfortable to be around. Her humor and intelligence are engaging, and throughout our discussions I realized that Deboer is more than just an artist; she’s an “art-activist.”
“Art is visceral,” she says. “You feel it in your body. Artists have a responsibility to influence, educate and expand human consciousness.” For Deboer, the purpose of art is to remind people of the heart in the decision making process, not just the head or the ego.
The first body painting piece that I did with her was called “You Cannot Censor the Heart.” It was a tribute to efforts against not only art censorship, but the ways that a political climate can run counter to public opinion. With a censorship bar painted across my mouth, a realistic heart painted on my chest, and me appearing to rip my chest open with a deer-in-headlight expression in my eyes, the piece was incredibly powerful. Maui photographer Zen Panda arrived to take photographs, and within a few days the images hit social media like a ton of bricks.
A few weeks later, “You Cannot Censor the Heart” images flooded Instagram and Facebook feeds, even being re-posted by internationally acclaimed body painters, art groups and Standing Rock No DAPL communities. It was incredible. With this kind of social media popularity and the confirmation about how Deboer’s art is helping people throughout the world, the fire within us grew. Deboer, Zen Panda and I were all pumped to produce more such art.
“Political body painting became my focus immediately after the election,” Deboer says. “I was horrified with the whole process and wanted to bury my head in the sand. I admit I was complacent for a long time in politics, taking our hard won social freedoms such as LGBTQ gains for granted. As soon as our now president was elected, I knew I needed to express what was in my heart and that’s when ‘You Cannot Censor the Heart’ came out.”
A few weeks later, DeBoer and I returned to Zen Panda’s photography studio in Kahului. There was a new political body art piece idea, and this one was going to be insane. Although we weren’t exactly sure how it would turn out, it ended up amazing.
Deboer painted my body as an American flag using black-light body paint. I was tied up in Shibari ropes, a form of Japanese bondage. I was also wearing a “V for Vendetta” mask, a sort of homage to the international network of political activists and hackers called “Anonymous.” DeBoer named the piece “America Held Hostage.” I see it as a direct artistic reflection of how many Americans felt and still feel since Trump took over the Oval Office.
Given the social media success of “You Cannot Censor the Heart,” “America Held Hostage” was the perfect follow-up. Like a laser focused on justice, Deboer’s newest piece burned into the darkest alleys of America’s soul. Then in early January, Deboer went to Los Angeles, where she attended the anti-Trump march and the 750,000-strong Women’s March, also in LA. At the anti-Trump march, she painted half of her face with hearts and flowers and the other half as Trump. She marched with her fellow activists holding a sign that said, “Which Face of America are You?” She told me that she’ll attend as many marches and demonstrations as she can in the next four years.
“Attending these marches have helped me to silence the voices of doubt and insecurity that no one would care about what I cared about,” she says. “When things this important such as our lives are on the line, artistic expression and public gatherings of like-minded people can boost the soul and heart morale of the nation.”
A few weeks ago, Deboer painted me again. The newest of her body art activism collection is a dedication to women’s rights and gender equality. Titled “Rosie the Resister,” she painted me in an illustration-style as “Rosie the Riveter,” the iconic image of the female defense plant worker created by J.Howard Miller in 1943 for the U.S government.
My overall experience of meeting, getting to know and creating a sisterhood with Deboer has been incredible. I’m sure that we’ll be creating more art pieces together, but I’m most excited to see where Rachel’s political art and efforts as a political activist will take her. Given the words and actions of President Trump, she will have a lot of work ahead of her.
“Art lovers can support political body art by beginning to paint on themselves,” Deboer says. “Even face painting and painting words on the body is very powerful. The act of putting color and shape to mental constructs on the human canvas is transformative and forever creatively fulfilling.
Photography by Zen Panda Photography
Cover design: Darris Hurst