Using the skin as a canvas

Local body painter, Kitakiya Dennis, said body-painting used to be out of her comfort zone. Today, it’s her career.

UArts graduate Kitakiya Dennis, 27, works as a multimedia artist in the city. Margo Reed | TTN
UArts graduate Kitakiya Dennis, 27, works as a multimedia artist in the city. Margo Reed | TTN

Kitakiya Dennis recently painted naked bodies at an all-nude birthday party – and that’s not her craziest experience to date.

Philadelphia-born artist Dennis, 27, started her painting career when she arrived at the University of the Arts in 2009. The decision to be a body painter and utilize the body as a medium was not an easy one, she said.

“I’ve always been interested in art, but I didn’t know what type because I thought all art was really nice,” Dennis said. “In high school I was all over – I was dancing and acting and everything was fun. When I came to college it was hard to choose one thing.”

She decided to pursue a degree in the UArts multimedia program, which still allowed her to experiment with a variety of mediums, she said. Her connection to painting ultimately felt most natural.

“I don’t have to think about it very much,” Dennis said. “It’s kind of being risky, but doing what’s comfortable at the same time.”

Her shift to painting bodies was slow, she said, and came after a volunteer face-painting experience when people began asking her to paint their arms and shoulders.

Dennis said body-painting was out of her comfort zone at first and definitely out of the comfort zone of her subjects.

“At first it was really hard to convince people but after a few times they warmed up to it,” she said. “The first person I painted was my friend from college and she was very open to it, but when I first started it was definitely only people that trusted me.”

Though the idea of painting someone fully nude took time to adjust to, Dennis said she has always had a fascination with bodies, something that stemmed from her mother’s interest in fitness.

Her mother stressed to her the beauty of the human body, instilling in her an appreciation for the way it moves. This ultimately inspired her work.

Now, Dennis hopes to pass along her motto of body confidence and comfort to those she paints.

“I think seeing what people tell me about how they feel after being exposed and telling me what their going through – when I listen to those experiences and seeing how they live and all of their different beliefs, it makes me start to understand different perspectives,” she said. “It even encourages me to be more free myself.”

Dennis’ spirituality is also a big influence on the way she views her work and her life.

“When we talk about spirituality, it has a lot to do with doing things that you’re afraid of, but it’s beneficial and it plays a role with helping people feel more comfortable with themselves,” she said. “[Body-painting] is not anything dangerous, but it is kind of out of the box for people. I’ve seen big differences with people that have never done anything nude before.”

Though she has done work for the Philly Naked Bike Ride and a Fetish for Art event at Cafe 12 in Washington Square, Dennis said one subtly beautiful moment while hiking Glen Onoko Falls is what she remembers best.

“It was raining that day and the [woman] I was painting had to hold an umbrella so I was painting her under this umbrella,” she said. “We had to climb up rocks and we were taking photos and the higher we got, the more waterfalls we could see.”

“We were climbing this never-ending trail and we were tired and hungry, but to see her under the waterfall – and at the end she made this warrior pose – to see that, it was very beautiful,” she said.

Dennis said she hopes that her work will evolve as she advances in her career, saying that while she always knew she wanted her artwork to move in some way, she never expected it to have come this far.

“Being an artist is always hard, so I feel very blessed that I’m doing something I really enjoy,” Dennis said. “I can picture myself doing this for a long, long time, but I think it will develop in a way I don’t expect. That’s what I’m excited for.”

Alexa Bricker can be reached at

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