On a typical weekday, Shelley Wapniak, a Brooklyn native, will be in her studio in Gravesend, with a brush, painting images on her clients’ bodies—eagles, apples, butterflies, even Stars of David. She’s taken these pictures from her sketches, and stencils them onto the bodies of men and women using a light eyebrow pencil. With an army of brushes and an array of paint colors by her side, she’ll slowly create elaborate illustrations on her clients.
Wapniak, 33, was recently a contestant on Season 3 of the Game Show Network’s Skin Wars, in which 12 body painters vie for a $100,000 prize and a spot in the World Body Painting Festival in Austria. Her artwork included depictions of Alice in Wonderland, the Russian holiday White Nights Festival, and the fourth day of Creation, for which a bird and a fish were painted onto opposite sides of a model’s body. For one competition, Wapniak had to camouflage a model, a process she said “taught me the most.”
Although Wapniak was recently eliminated, Skin Wars judge and professional body painter Craig Tracy said he loves her spirit and expects big things from her in the future. “I learned a lot about myself,” said Wapniak, who was second to be eliminated. But her participation was simply a televised extension of her long love affair with art and with body painting, which she does to earn a living and also practices on friends when she’s not working.
Wapniak has been drawing since she was a child. She grew up going to Yeshivas on Long Island and attended the art program at Long Beach High School, before enrolling at SUNY-Purchase’s art conservatory for two years. She took odd jobs throughout her twenties, then started doing face painting and balloon twisting for children’s parties to make ends meet. Eventually, she discovered body painting through a friend. “I found my own way into it,” she said.
At first, she would work on people who did cosplay or wanted a unique look for Halloween—someone once asked to be painted head-to-toe as Superman—and her first paid gig was for a nightclub, painting two dancers in Yankees pinstripes.
As her craft developed, Wapniak began to paint images that included words—some depicted Jewish symbols, others illustrated the events of 9/11—and soon she started to see the potential for depth in her line of work. “I really connected with body paint on a new level,” she said, “[and] how people relate to the humanity behind the piece itself.”
Wapniak now earns a living as a body painter, charging upwards of $600 per session. Her favorite style is “organic pieces that the model can move with,” she said. “I work with some agile women, and I’ll paint abstract illustrations that they can dance around in.”
While she’ll post photos of her other clients online, some of her customers are frum Jews who want to be painted in private, desiring a connection to the experience itself. “It’s something we do in their homes, behind closed doors,” she said. “It’s not about other people seeing it. A lot of them are willing to get painted and very curious about it.”
Though Wapniak grew up religious, these days she’s not as observant. Still, she feels in tune with her spiritual side when she paints. “There is an underlying spirituality that guides me and is always there whether it’s on high alert or it’s more dulled,” she said. “The body painting itself does bring it out of me, especially when I start painting anything related to Judaism. You share this energy exchange and a connection with the person.”
On Skin Wars, Wapniak and 11 other contestants lived in a house together and participated in a variety of body painting challenges; during this time, contestants were cut off from their electronic devices and the outside world. Wapniak made it through four challenges before her fate was decided by Tracy and fellow judges RuPaul and body painter Robin Slonina.
Though Wapniak said she had a overall positive experience on the show, she doesn’t know if body painting will be her life-long career. She’s believes, however, that she will stick with making art, because that’s what makes her happy. “I always want to get my hands in something else,” she said. “I get bored and I like to keep it fresh. As long as I’m creating in one way or another, I’ll enjoy myself.”
Kylie Ora Lobell is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who’s been published in The Jewish Journal, Time Out New York & LA, xoJane, Dell’s Tech Page One blog, and NewsCred.