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Corpse Paint: Exploring the Meaning Behind Extreme Metal's Iconic Face Paint

The world of extreme metal music, has created a unique aesthetic element that has captivated fans for decades. Corpse Paint, a distinctive style of face painting, has become synonymous with the genre, often adorning the faces of black metal musicians. While its origins can be traced back to the early days of the genre, corpse paint has evolved into a powerful symbol that embodies the darkness, rebellion, and individuality that defines extreme metal music.

If you recognize the rock band Kiss then you have seen corpse paint and you can now recognize it too on singers like Marilyn Manson. Corpse Paint later branched out as a makeup style beyond rock bands to inspire looks for characters like the joker (in its newer darker version), or even high fashion looks and Halloween style makeups.

In this blog post, we will explore the origins, symbolism, and evolution of corpse paint, understanding its significance within the metal community and the implications within our society.

This blog post will be divided in two, one part dedicated to the actual look and how to achieve a Corps Face Paint look, and a second part focused on the history, meaning and evolution of Corpse paint.

How to Achieve a Corpse Paint Look?

Achieving the perfect Corpse Paint look is actually fairly easy as for most variations of it you just need a good white face paint and a good black face paint, and if you plan on keeping it for several hours, then it would not hurt to use a makeup sealer like Ben Nye Final Seal.

We will first start by cleaning the face for which you can use good face soap like the Brush and Body Wash Soap by Jest Paint. Once your face is clean and dry you can proceed to apply a good smooth and even layer of white face paint. If you want a face paint that will feel smooth and soft and move with your skin we recommend getting that base done using Superstar Base White face paint. Its glycerin base is perfect for large coverage and smooth finishes.

You can use a face paint sponge to load your paint, simply dip the tip of your sponge on water, then rub the sponge in a circular motion over the surface of the face paint cake until you get a nice creamy load. Then, tap over the skin with your sponge going over the same area several times until you get a nice finish.

Now is time to do the black areas. We suggest using Fusion Body Art Strong Black since it is very dark, precise and easier to wash off than other brands.

Apply your details with a round brush, or a flat or filbert brush depending on the specific design you are trying to achieve. Remember to always load your brush with a creamy consistency but a bit more inky than you would for a base if you are trying to create thin details with a round brush.

That is it, white face, black details, usually over the eyes, sometimes around the mouth and you got yourself a Corpse Paint look. Of course, that is the basic look, you can always add more, depending on the occasion, adding gems, or even some extra colors.

Person wearing corpse makeup in front of a laptop

Photo by But Never Dull on Unsplash

I. The Birth of Corpse Paint

Black Metal's Roots: Norway's Second Wave

The genre known as black metal emerged in Norway during the 1980s, characterized by what some would describe as a raw and aggressive sound, with anti-establishment ideologies, and a tendency for darkness and rebellion. Bands like Mayhem, Burzum, and Darkthrone were at the forefront of this movement, shaping not only the music but also the visual aesthetics that would come to define black metal.

Example of Corpse Paint - Male person in front of laptop wearing corpse makeup
Image Credit: Photo by But Never Dull on Unsplash

Influences and Early Adopters: Venom, Mercyful Fate, and King Diamond

While black metal was emerging in Norway, it drew inspiration from earlier bands like Venom, Mercyful Fate, and King Diamond, who employed face paint and theatrical stage presence as integral parts of their performances. These influences would lay the foundation for the emergence of corpse paint in black metal.

Mayhem and the Infamous "Dead" Era Mayhem, one of the pioneering bands of black metal, became notorious for its association with tragic events. The tragic death of vocalist Per "Dead" Ohlin in 1991 marked a turning point for the genre and the development of corpse paint. Dead's corpse-like appearance, achieved through the use of face paint, left a lasting impact on the black metal scene.

What is Corpse Paint?

Corpse Paint is simply a makeup style first used by dark metal bands to enhance their message and create a unique style that provided them with their own identity. It mainly consists of a white face with some details in black usually around the eyes as heavy black circles creating a dark and menacing image that went along with the message they were trying to express through their music and art.

Euronymous and the Iconic Corpse Paint Style

Euronymous, Mayhem's guitarist, played a crucial role in popularizing and refining the corpse paint style. With his macabre stage presence and black-and-white corpse paint, Euronymous embodied the darkness and rebellion sentiment that defined black metal.

Spread and Influence: Other Countries and Subgenres

Corpse paint's influence extended beyond Norway's borders, influencing black metal scenes in countries like Sweden, Finland, and Greece. Additionally, corpse paint found its way into other subgenres of extreme metal, including death metal, thrash metal, and symphonic metal, further solidifying its significance as a visual identifier of "extreme" music.

II. Symbolism and Meaning

The Carnivalesque and Theatrical Nature of Corpse Paint

Corpse paint's connection to the carnivalesque tradition is undeniable. The tradition of masks and disguises in carnivals has long been associated with the idea of freedom, subversion, and a temporary release from societal norms. In the context of black metal, corpse paint serves to enhance the theatricality of live performances, creating a visually captivating and emotionally intense experience for both the musicians and the audience.

Three People in front of a laptop wearing corpse makeup

Image Credits: Photo by But Never Dull on Unsplash

Embracing Darkness: Aesthetic Reflection of the Music

Corpse paint visually represents the dark and aggressive themes present in black metal music. The use of stark black and white colors conveys a symbolic representation of opposing forces, such as life and death, good and evil. The stark contrast creates a chilling and unsettling effect, evoking a sense of otherworldliness and introspection.

Corpse Paint as a Mask of Transformation

The act of applying corpse paint serves as a transformative ritual for black metal musicians. It allows them to shed their everyday identities and adopt a persona or alter ego that aligns with the intense and confrontational nature of the music. Corpse paint becomes a symbolic mask that shields the individual and allows them to embrace a more extreme and uncompromising expression of their artistic vision.

Person wearing Corpse Makeup

Picture Credit: Photo by Ryan McGuire on StockSnap

The Concept of "The Other": Alienation and Outsider Identity

Corpse paint embodies the feeling of being an outsider, a rejection of societal norms, and a celebration of individuality. In black metal culture, where artists often explore themes of darkness, misanthropy, and a sense of alienation, corpse paint becomes a visual representation of that inner turmoil. It serves as a means of expressing the individual's disconnection from mainstream society and their immersion in a subculture that values non-conformity and rebellion.

Rebellion and Anti-Societal Themes

Black metal, as a genre, is known for its rebellious spirit and its inclination to challenge societal and religious norms. Corpse paint, with its stark and defiant appearance, aligns perfectly with this ethos. The use of corpse paint allows musicians to visually embody the anti-establishment ideologies prevalent in black metal, creating a powerful symbol of defiance and opposition.

III. Evolution and Variations

From Monochromatic to Multi-Colored: The Diversification of Corpse Paint

While traditional corpse paint predominantly features black and white colors, there has been a diversification of the style over time. Some artists have experimented with incorporating additional colors, such as red, silver, or even neon shades, to create unique and visually striking variations of corpse paint.

Geometric Patterns and Tribal Influences

In recent years, there has been a trend of incorporating intricate geometric patterns into corpse paint designs. These patterns, inspired by tribal and indigenous art forms, add a new dimension to the visual aesthetics of corpse paint, creating a fusion of ancient symbolism with the darkness and intensity of extreme metal.

Occult and Ritualistic Symbolism

Corpse paint has often been associated with occult symbolism, with musicians incorporating sigils, runes, and other esoteric symbols into their designs. This connection to the occult adds an additional layer of mystique and depth to the visual representation of black metal artists, further emphasizing their exploration of the dark and supernatural realms.

Incorporating Nature and Animalistic Imagery

Many artists have expanded the repertoire of corpse paint by including nature-inspired elements and animalistic imagery. By incorporating symbols of nature, such as tree branches, leaves, or animal skulls, musicians create a connection to primal instincts and the raw forces of the natural world, enhancing the overall aesthetic and thematic coherence of their performances.

Innovations and Experimentation in Corpse Paint

As the black metal genre continues to evolve, so too does corpse paint. Artists constantly push the boundaries and experiment with new techniques, materials, and designs. From the use of 3D effects and prosthetics to incorporating elements of performance art, the innovation within the realm of corpse paint ensures that it remains a dynamic and evolving aspect of extreme metal culture.

Person wearing a black and white makeup looking like a skull
Image by ArthurHidden on Freepik

IV. Cultural Impact and Controversies

 Moral Panic and Media Sensationalism

The controversial nature of black metal and its connection to extreme acts led to a moral panic and media sensationalism during the 1990s. Corpse paint, being a visually striking and easily identifiable aspect of the genre, became a focal point for these sensationalized narratives. The media portrayed it as a symbol of evil and violence, often overlooking the deeper artistic and philosophical aspects of black metal.

Corpse Paint as a Visual Stereotype: Misconceptions and Misunderstandings

Due to its association with extreme metal and its striking appearance, corpse paint has often been misunderstood and misjudged by those outside the subculture. It is important to recognize that the use of corpse paint does not necessarily imply endorsement of criminal or violent behavior. Rather, it is an artistic choice and a form of self-expression that allows musicians to embody the themes and aesthetics of the music they create.

Influence on Fashion and Popular Culture

Despite the controversies and misunderstandings, corpse paint has had a significant impact on fashion and popular culture. Elements of corpse paint, such as stark white faces, dark eye makeup, and bold, contrasting colors, have been adopted by fashion designers, makeup artists, and performers outside of the metal scene. The striking visuals of corpse paint have influenced runway looks, editorial shoots, and even Halloween costumes, showcasing its broad appeal and cultural influence.

Person Painted with black and white makeup

Image by Nika Akin from Pixabay

The Subversion of Beauty Standards

Corpse paint challenges conventional beauty standards by embracing a deliberately unsettling and unconventional aesthetic. It subverts the notion that beauty must conform to traditional norms, instead celebrating individuality and self-expression. Corpse paint encourages a reimagining of beauty and a rejection of societal expectations, ultimately empowering individuals to express themselves authentically and without conformity.

Person wearing a black and white scary makeup with red lips

Image by master1305 on Freepik

V. Corpse Paint in the Modern Era 

Resurgence and Revival: The Continued Relevance of Corpse Paint

Corpse paint remains a vital and enduring aspect of extreme metal culture. Despite the controversies of the past, it continues to captivate and inspire new generations of musicians and fans. The aesthetic has experienced a resurgence in recent years, with bands paying homage to the classic black metal style while also incorporating new elements and personal touches.

Mainstream Acceptance and Commercialization

As extreme metal gains more mainstream attention and acceptance, elements of corpse paint have been embraced by a wider audience. Major music festivals and mainstream media outlets have showcased bands with corpse paint, contributing to its gradual normalization and acceptance in popular culture. However, this increased exposure also raises questions about the commercialization and dilution of a style deeply rooted in underground counterculture.

Contemporary Artists and Innovators

Corpse paint continues to evolve through the creativity and innovation of contemporary black metal artists. New generations of musicians bring their own interpretations and unique twists to the style, pushing boundaries and expanding the possibilities of corpse paint as a visual expression. Artists experiment with new techniques, incorporate elements of their cultural heritage, and explore unconventional materials to create striking and distinct looks.

Two Dancers on white clothing wearing black and white makeup

Image by Racool_studio on Freepik

Corpse Paint as a Tool for Self-Expression Beyond Music

Beyond the music world, corpse paint has become a means of self-expression for individuals outside the black metal scene. It has found its place in various forms of art, photography, and even performance art. Corpse paint allows individuals to explore and challenge their own identities, tapping into the raw emotions and hidden aspects of their personalities. It serves as a powerful tool for self-expression, enabling individuals to break free from societal expectations and embrace their inner darkness.

The Role of Social Media and Online Communities

Social media platforms and online communities have played a significant role in the dissemination and exploration of corpse paint aesthetics. Artists and fans can connect and share their creations, discuss techniques, and inspire one another through online platforms dedicated to extreme music and alternative culture. These digital spaces have fostered a sense of community and collaboration, allowing the corpse paint aesthetic to thrive and evolve in the modern era.

Corpse Paint as a Symbol of Identity and Belonging

For many fans of extreme metal, corpse paint has become a symbol of identity and a way to express their affiliation with the subculture. It serves as a visual signifier that communicates a shared love for the music, the ideology, and the sense of belonging within the metal community. Corpse paint helps create a sense of unity and camaraderie among fans, forging connections and fostering a strong bond that transcends geographical boundaries.


Corpse paint has emerged as a powerful and iconic visual element within extreme metal music. From its origins in the early days of black metal to its current manifestations in various subgenres, corpse paint has become a symbol of rebellion, darkness, and individuality. Its striking and unsettling appearance captures the essence of the music, reflecting the intensity, and raw emotions that define extreme metal.

While corpse paint has been subject to controversy and misconceptions, it continues to thrive and evolve as a form of artistic expression. It challenges beauty standards, subverts societal norms, and empowers individuals to embrace their authentic selves. Corpse paint holds a deep significance within the metal community, fostering a sense of identity, belonging, and unity among fans and artists alike.

As we navigate the modern era, corpse paint remains a testament to the enduring power of visual aesthetics in music and the ability of artistic expression to transcend boundaries and evoke strong emotions. Its influence reaches far beyond the metal scene, leaving an indelible mark on fashion, popular culture, and the broader landscape of artistic creativity. Corpse paint stands as a testament to the resilience and ever-evolving nature of extreme music, ensuring its continued place as a defining element of the genre for years to come.

Disclosure: The author used GPT-3, OpenAI’s large-scale language-generation model to aid with the writing (to get better formulated sentences, create the text structure, find synonyms, etc). Upon generating draft language with a mix of author's contributions and AI generated text, the author reviewed, edited, and revised the language to their own liking and takes ultimate responsibility for the content of this publication. 

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