Lehigh Valley native Matt Deifer always has loved to draw and paint.
He started out traditionally, studying drawing and art history at the Barnstone Studios in Coplay, painting on canvas from live models in the studio.
Today, his focus and specialty is painting on live, often nude, models for advertisements and special events. It’s a burgeoning business that has seen Deifer’s body painting featured in national and international ads and for clients ranging from local festivals to a Playboy model to ESPN, the worldwide sports network.
“It just randomly happened and it continues to grow,” said Deifer, now based in Philadelphia.
The Whitehall High School graduate studied communications at Ithaca College, from which he graduated in 2002. In New York, he learned to produce and promote concerts and festivals with a production company, where he also began to practice live painting on canvas, creating performance art at some of the shows.
“The subject would vary, depending on the event,” he said. “It was improvisational, in the vein of [Wassily] Kandinsky, the father of abstract expressionism.”
Deifer would “go with the flow” and create interactive art experiences with the crowd, inviting audience members to join in his creations.
‘HEY, I SHOULD PAINT YOU’
Deifer continued to do live art paintings after returning to Pennsylvania. He has painted live at the Red Cross Red Ball in Philadelphia, with the result being entered in the event’s silent auction. In winter 2013, he painted live during an American Heart Association event in Bethlehem.
Through it all, he maintained a studio in West Philadelphia, where he created fine art and practiced photography. It was at this location, one day about four years ago, that his life and career took an unexpected turn.
“I was working on a series of blacklight studio paintings on canvas one day and joking around with my friend,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Hey, I should paint you.’ And she said, ‘OK.’ ”
Not knowing anything about proper body paint at that time, Deifer used acrylics to decorate her and posted a status update about the experiment on Facebook.
“So many people responded, wanting to be painted,” he said, still surprised at the messages. “I thought it was just a cool experience.”
The “cool” continued when, two days later, a Playboy playmate contacted him to paint her for a Halloween party.
“I charged her a pretty high amount, hired someone to help me and bought my first set of paints,” Deifer said.
After he was done turning the playmate into a representation of a blue character from the movie, “Avatar,” she won first place in the holiday contest and sent him a big tip.
“I did 20 gigs in the next couple of months, started a website, got the logo and just went with it,” he said.
He added the new business, Bodypaint.Me, to the roster of his existing Funtown Productions, which provides specialty performers — fire performers, sidewalk chalk muralists, stilt walkers, costumed characters and more — for festivals, video shoots and other events.
Today, Deifer is among a small, but growing, field of artists who specialize in painting nude or semi-nude men and women for all types of occasions.
Painting on the human body isn’t new, of course, as indigenous people around the world long have used clay and natural pigments to decorate their bodies.
Even in the modern day, body painting has been around for a while. Demi Moore posed for the cover of Vanity Fair in August 1992 wearing a painted-on business suit.
And the 2014 cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue featured a model wearing a bathing suit that wasn’t a suit at all, but paint.
The 34-year-old Deifer said Bodypaint.Me was named after all the friends he had asking him, “Hey, will you body paint me?”
And he’s been happy to oblige.
“This is one of my favorite things,” Deifer said. “It’s interactive and empowering for those who get painted. It really does change people and breaks people out of their shells.”
He said that even models often have little confidence, and then he paints them and photographs them and it reinforces confidence in their bodies. He loves the always-different nature of his work, and he loves painting on living, breathing canvas. He also enjoys the audience appeal of painting live.
“It engages people, and they come up and get painted. Then they post pictures on social networks and all their friends love it, and it spreads beyond just the people at the event.”
WORK FOR ESPN
Over the past year, Deifer has worked on a variety of large commercial projects, including an ad for Ducati motorcycles for Japanese television, in which six women were painted black, white and red and posed together to create a human motorcycle.
He worked with body painter Trina Merry on this project.
Most recently, he worked with ESPN and Applebee’s on an ad to promote the Monday Night Football franchise on the network.
His work also is featured on the January cover of Selling Halloween, a business-to-business Halloween industry magazine.
ON THE THRESHOLD
Deifer spent much of last summer working with fans of Spruce Street Harbor Park, on the Delaware waterfront in Philadelphia, and will paint faces on specified winter weekends at the Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest.
“We like working with Matt because he’s so creative and artistic,” said Christine Khor, event and marketing assistant for the Delaware River Waterfront Corp.
“He’s accommodating and friendly, and people love what he does. …,” Khor said. “He can create something unique on the spot. … I even saw adults standing in line to have him paint their faces.”
From face painting at local parks and festivals to creating national and international ads for television and magazines, Deifer said he feels he’s part of something big and getting bigger.
“This is a relatively small industry, but has been growing in the past few years,” he said. “Most people can’t name a famous body painter yet, but it’s exciting to help make it happen.”