Katie Moore / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS – He works with a palette like any other, using the colors of the rainbow and beyond. It's not the palette that makes French Quarter artist Craig Tracy unique.
It's his canvas: human skin in all its glory, every hair, every goose bump, every wrinkle, every mole.
“It is a lot more interesting both to do and to view,” Tracy said.
Tracy said his Royal Street Gallery is a first-of-its-kind, the only one in the world, where live body paintings are captured and canvassed. He opened it just before Mardi Gras 2006, right after Hurricane Katrina, a new investment in a city struggling to survive.
“When I look at my own images, the paintings that I've done over the last 10 years, I'm also looking at days of my life that I've spent with another person,” he said.
Many of his body paintings fool the eye. If you look closely, you’ll see his south China tiger is actually three women.
Tracy has videos shot of many of his most labor-intensive works. What makes them even more intriguing is seeing those canvasses come to life.
“This past white linen night we had 40 painted bodies,” he said. “The people painted smile and the people looking smile, so it worked out really nice.”
Tracy normally works out of his French Quarter studio, but from time to time, you'll see him pop up in the most unusual of places, some of them very public.
“That looks like it was done in a field somewhere in a heavily natural environment but it was actually done right off Poydras,” Tracy said.
Last summer, Tracy painted a woman crouched down in the planter in front of a downtown hi-rise. She blended in with the plants inside of it. His work is clearly meant to be provocative, to fool the mind and sometimes the eye.
For example, one of his works is a woman painted to look like the painting of a woman.
And even though he spends hours with his models, sometimes painting the most intimate of places, he's adamant that there's nothing erotic about it.
“My painting is intentionally non-sexual, sensual, erotic. There is plenty of erotic art out there, and that's not what I'm creating.”
In fact Tracy has done a series of body paintings involving newborn babies.
“It's challenging because they don't speak English,” he said. “But it's been incredibly rewarding and given me some of my favorite images.”
He's become so successful selling the images of his work that he only paints what he wants, when he wants, doing just a handful of commissioned pieces a year.
He now has a television agent, a book agent and just finished shooting a documentary about his life for a German television crew. Tracy said he has even had talks about doing his own reality show.
After all, his story is one you just couldn't make up. His first "gallery" was a t-shirt shop in Clearview Mall.
“I owned a t-shirt business. And people would start requesting from me during Halloween and Mardi Gras that I paint their faces.”
He turned fun art into fine art, and ironically, he won't do body paintings for hire during Mardi Gras or Halloween anymore.
It is art for art's sake by a man who was born almost legally blind. In simple terms he has a birth defect where his eyes are recessed, affecting his vision.
“It's a painting of harmoniously balanced opposites,” he said.
Tracy said his favorite work is called "speed" and makes him smile for a number of reasons.
“I remember that it was very cold in the studio that day and the model was a very good sport.”
It also helped put him on the map and put him on a path to living every artist's American dream.
Tracy said he has a waiting list of thirty models who want to work with him.