Easy, Breezy, Brutal: Three Major Movements in Heavy Metal Makeup

The roots of heavy metal makeup can probably be most clearly traced to Alice Cooper, who began experimenting with unusual stage makeup and clothing in the late 1960s, and then through the New York Dolls to Kiss, who by 1973 had developed their iconic stage looks. The makeup styles that these three bands popularized in the early '70s have continued to resurface in different ways throughout the history of metal and related genres. Whether it's the over-the-top horror of Alice Cooper, the glamorous peacocking of the New York Dolls, or the clean lines and calculated stylization of Kiss, many have followed in their footsteps. Here is the legacy of some of the most famous (painted) faces in rock 'n' roll.


The Horror Show: Alice Cooper

Despite the fact that Alice's makeup looks have always been relatively restrained, and that by today's standards, his 1970s stage antics seem positively quaint, it's important to remember that at the time, he struck real fear in both his fans and their moms. While some of his makeup looks have been paid homage to directly, Hank von Helvete from Turbonegro is a prime example, it's his legacy to the space where horror and music collide that's most notable.

Alice Cooper and Hank von Helvete


Alice's legacy is most apparent in Scandinavia. Corpsepaint has become closely associated with the black metal scene, and it was Mayhem who were first to popularize it in Norway. Dead from Mayhem's signature makeup is particularly reminiscent of Alice Cooper's most popular look, despite much protestation from bandmates that he wasn't influenced by other bands and "didn't do it to look cool". Many black metal artists used makeup to inspire alienation and fear, often turning their faces into caricatures of death, much like Alice did (and still does). 

Dead and Alice Cooper


Where Alice Cooper uses stage blood in his act and is often photographed in artfully bloodied clothes, some black metal musicians integrate blood in their stage makeup directly, adding a splash of red to the classic black and white. 

L: Watain, Gaahl from Gorgoroth, Nattefrost from Carpathian Forest applying his makeup, and R: the final product. 


Alice Cooper's influence can also be felt in bands like Mercyful Fate (and later King Diamond), where the idea of a made-up ringleader backed by a far less interesting looking group is very apparent. That tradition lives on in critically acclaimed group Ghost B.C., whose Papa Emeritus opts for a terrifying skull motif, topped off with hats and robes worthy of any pope, while the rest of the band looks comparatively understated in medieval masks.

Mercyful Fate and Ghost B.C. 

The Pretty Boys: New York Dolls

While aesthetically, the New York Dolls drew on the androgynous influences of English glam rock, musically, their raw, abrasive rock 'n' roll went on to influence the early punk and metal scene. Their look, however, ended up blowing up in the form of '80s hair metal. 

New York Dolls and Mötley Crüe


Closest to the Dolls in style and sound is early Mötley Crüe, but bands like Poison and Cinderella took it to a truly androgynous place by piling on even more eyeliner and frosted lipstick. Obviously, these hair bands and their many contemporaries had realized that the Dolls were on to something, and if their sleazy tell-all memoirs are to be believed, wearing more makeup than their fans didn't seem to deny them opportunities to smear their elaborately contoured blush all over the bodies of legions of willing young ladies. 

Poison and Cinderella


The look lived on in the smeared eyeliner and complicated hairstyles of fashioncore bands like Eighteen Visions and Avenged Sevenfold, and has been adopted with a harder, gothier look by Black Veil Brides, reaching an extreme, but perhaps logical, conclusion in the unhinged Victorian doll costuming of Japanese band Versailles (despite appearances, all the members of all the bands pictured below are male). 

L: Eighteen Visions, Avenged Sevenfold, Black Veil Brides, R: Versailles

The Icons: Kiss

Even though Kiss was heavily influenced by both Alice Cooper and New York Dolls, it's what they did with their makeup that puts them in an entirely different category. Seeing how much attention and fear Alice commanded, and how many girls flocked to the dressed up Dolls, convinced Gene Simmons to take it one step further. He created an conspicuously unified aesthetic for his newly renamed band (formerly known as Wicked Lester). This is how the four original Kiss personas were born, along with the makeup and outfits that signified them. Using their faces as a brand, and consciously creating a visual signature for the band, helped elevate Kiss to their current status, and many others have followed in this path with much success.

Kiss and Immortal

Abbath from Immortal's face paint, while not as intricate as that of many of his peers and followers, whose ghoulish paint is closer to Alice Cooper in terms of aesthetics, is as instantly recognizable to black metal fans as Kiss' makeup is to the rest of the world. This is particularly fitting, as he is a huge Kiss fan. In fact, as a band, Immortal's corpse paint looks just as striking as Kiss' makeup, with each member using clean lines, heavy contrast and well-defined shapes to create a clear and distinct persona.

This category is also home to bands who push the definition of makeup to its limit. Bands like Gwar, Lordi, and Slipknot embody Alice's shock rock tradition, but have mostly followed Kiss' example by creating elaborate personas and distinctive, mostly unchanging, makeup designs. Of course, unlike Kiss, these three bands use rubber masks instead of paints and pencils to strike fear (and sometimes mirth) into the hearts of their audience, but their importance cannot be ignored.

Gwar, Lordi, and Slipknot


Slipknot developed nine individual onstage characters that melded into a unified onstage aesthetic, with each member simultaneously embodying both a clearly defined individual persona through his mask and his function as a member of a unit through his clothing (matching jumpsuits or colour-coordinated outfits are the norm). Lordi, winners of the 2006 edition of the Eurovision song contest, have pulled a page right from Kiss' playbook, turning their likenesses and characters into comic books and even a feature film, Dark Floors.

But the granddaddy of them all is Gwar, who have been skewering culture since 1984 with their brand of satirical metal, all while wearing gigantic rubber costumes and masks. Again, while Alice Cooper would be proud of their over the top stage show, it's their commitment to their individual characterizations, across 12 studio albums and 23 video compilations, that has raised them to icon status.

Of course, there are many more examples of elaborate facepainting in heavy music. Wes Borland from Limp Bizkit spent a large part of the '90s attempting to outdo himself with his makeup. Marilyn Manson has been no stranger to the Max Factor counter over his career, and Attila Csihar, who has worked with more bands than Mike Patton, which is saying something, has pushed the envelope with his facepaint and masks over the years. I'd argue, however, that those three have more in common with David Bowie than any of the three mentioned above, but that would be an entire article in and of itself. 

Wes Borland, Marilyn Manson, and Attila Csihar


While ghoulish, ghastly or just plain outlandish makeup can be traced back to the early '70s and beyond, up-and-coming bands like Ghost B.C. show that elaborate costuming and facepainting still has the potential to amuse and enthral, and it seems unlikely that many proponents of black metal will rush to abandon their corpsepaint anytime soon. Love it or hate it, makeup in metal is here to stay.