The French Quarter artist ushered body painting into the realm of fine art while maintaining his artistic freedom, but there's more to come.
- by Grace Wilson
- photos by Ellis Anderson
In the early 2000s, Craig Tracy seemed to be living an artist’s dream.
He owned an air-brushing business, and created something every day. But while he was his own boss, the passion was missing. His interest fluttered and waned. And that put him one step short of artistic freedom.
“My goal as an artist has always been to contribute, not perpetuate,” Tracy says. “I want to do work unlike any that has ever existed before, and I don’t want it to be compared to any other artist who has come before me.”
In keeping with that goal, he became driven by a new concept: founding the world’s first fine art body-painting gallery.
Tracy’s history in the body-painting world is well documented, but his enthusiasm for this ancient art form peaked at the 2005 World Bodypainting Festival held every summer in Southern Austria. Tracy and team took first prize in the international contest, cementing his two-year plan to open a French Quarter gallery.
“When I first found body painting, it wasn’t a career path for an artist. I knew it could be,” Tracy says. “I’d try explaining [the concept] to people, but they had no idea what I was talking about. It’s been my struggle to reshape how people think and feel about body painting as fine art.”
By July, 2005, Tracy had found a prospective buyer for his old business. He began looking for a small space in the French Quarter, encouraged by the success of other artist-owned galleries like the one owned by the late Robert Guthrie.
“The Quarter was always magical, filled with energy and vibrant humanity,” he says. “Those childhood memories in the Quarter absolutely sculpted my life. The sights and sounds still fill me with blissful exuberance.”
Tracy still hadn’t found a gallery space when Hurricane Katrina hit. After the storm, the real estate market softened because of the many vacancies. Bigger commercial spaces became available at more reasonable prices. Simultaneously, the demographics of his potential customer base shifted as well. Visiting art collectors had been replaced by 20-something volunteers and contractors.
But when a large space came open on the 800 block of Royal Street, the artist threw the dice and “used every available dollar” he had to launch the first body painting art gallery. The doors of Painted Alive opened with 20 pieces in February 2006.
Most art in the gallery begins with a living, human canvas Craig paints. The models are then professionally photographed and the images transformed in collectible, hang-able artworks.
Tracy’s original collection was nature-themed. “Salvation,” one of his most iconic pieces, depicts a South China Tiger spanning the bodies of three models. Viewers initially see the striking sides of a tiger’s nose and mouth. Then they realize they’re looking at the hourglass shape of a woman’s side and hips. In moments, the tiger’s hypnotic eyes and strong cheekbones reveal themselves as two other models, one on each side of the “nose.”
A visible shift occurs when a new gallery visitor stands in front of Tracy’s works. At first glance, the painting appears two-dimensional. As curious eyes study the painting more, elements of the human form come into focus, the shapes of the body and textures of the skin adding to the visual experience. At the moment of realization, body posture changes. The visitor will straighten or lean back in surprise. He has entered a fascinating world he cannot unsee.
In Tracy’s previous business, he provided a service. Now he says he’s providing an experience, one people “never had before in regard to contemporary art.” During the first four years Tracy manned the gallery most every day, but he certainly didn’t feel chained to an office.
“The gallery felt like my living room,” he says. “I got to chat with so many people and listen to their stories. I opened when I wanted in the morning and closed when I wanted to in the evening. I met neighbors and the neighborhood characters.”
Yet manning the gallery stole valuable artistic time. His brother, Phil, who’d been working in the restaurant industry, offered to help out and eventually took over as gallery director. Tracy was initially leery. “If you’ve seen the movie ‘Godfather’ you know sometimes brothers kill each other.”
Phil came on board and began to “kick ass.” And the artist realized he’d regained complete artistic freedom on the morning his brother called to check in after opening the gallery.
“I realized I had the entire day, and the foreseeable future, to do whatever I wanted,” Tracy says. “Complete and total freedom.”
A popular Netflix series “Skin Wars,” a reality show centered around body painting, kicked off in 2014, with Tracy starring as one of the judges. Tracy’s reputation has spread world-wide, growing his international fan-base.
For some, it’s a memorable adventure that offers a stunning “souvenir.” For others, the body painting also acts as a type of therapy for models who have struggled to overcome body issues. One Skin Wars show was based on breast-cancer survivors after Tracy began to see how body painting could help with emotional healing.
The artist is determined to protect his freedom despite his burgeoning international fame. Tracy fills his days concocting new projects, moving forward on older ones, creating podcasts and entertaining friends on his huge French Quarter balcony. And in his 4,000 square foot studio, he’s working hard on a “secret project” he has yet to unveil.
While he’s cagey about the new project and refuses to give any hints, he grins and his eyes brighten when the topic comes up. “Truly, I think the best is yet to come.”
See more work at CraigTracy.com
Grace grew up in Central Louisiana, but got to New Orleans as quickly as she could. After graduating from Loyola, she immediately bought a small shotgun near the Fairgrounds, a bold move for a 20-something who could barely keep a house plant alive. She has worked for New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Times Picayune. Today she continues to help businesses and institutions connect with audiences through public relations and social media. She now owns a piece of the French Quarter and is keeping alive her daughter Pearl, her small chihuahua Presley and her husband, Captain Christian. Grace will always love New Orleans, but has recently discovered the magic of Bay St. Louis, the Gulf Coast and beyond.