When Elena Miller, 19, was gifted soft pastels last month, she decided to paint something colorful. But instead of rendering a rainbow or a sunset, she decided to paint a heat map of her naked body with her hand placed gingerly over her chest. She uploaded a coloring tutorial to TikTok and captioned the video, “I can’t believe I’m posting this. I hope my mom doesn’t see it lmao.”
Why post artistic nudes? “Everyone’s looking for stuff to do in quarantine,” she explains. “Part of the appeal is being able to show off pictures you like but wouldn’t normally post without it being scandalous or looked down on.”
Miller became something of a TikTok art influencer: She kicked off a trend of young female artists drawing bodies of all shapes and sizes. They call them “thermal noods” — basically, a diverse array of heat-mapped pinup portraits.
Put simply, TikTok’s “thermal noods” are a creative way for art kids to skirt the no-nudity rules on a PG app. Hence the funny spelling: “The TikTok guidelines would’ve taken my post if I did #nude, so you gotta say #nood,” says Mikayla Crisafulli, a 21-year-old at San Jose State University.
Some underage users, too, post thermal art on TikTok. But most still operate within TikTok’s censorship rules, meaning no exposed nipples or genitalia. Generally, their work is about as revealing as a bikini plandid on Instagram. (All the people interviewed and mentioned in this story are adults.)
To understand why these risque thermal portraits took off, it helps to understand the history of borderline-NSFW challenges on TikTok, a platform with a young teenage user base and heavy moderation.
Though nudity is scarce on the app, conventionally attractive users are its most viral stars. Tiktok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, and several internal documents obtained by the Intercept revealed that TikTok’s mysterious algorithm has suppressed content with “ugly facial looks,” “abnormal body shape” and other “low-quality” traits that signify a user might be working-class. As Vice reported in late 2018, predators are known to creep on young users and ask them for nudes. Porn occasionally slips through the censors, too. But “TikTok nudity” or “TikTok porn” generally refers to over-18 TikTok stars who run a separate OnlyFans account — or sneaky uses of the Invisible filter.
Unlike the Invisible challenge, though, thermal noods aren’t about rule-breaking — they’re about creativity and self-expression. Most artists say the trend is an opportunity for college-aged female artists to reject the overwhelming influencer aesthetic while adhering to TikTok’s guidelines. Kira Zyvith, 19, based her drawing on a sensual mirror selfie. “It felt a bit weird at first, but I feel like art is an expressive form, and I wanted to go outside of my comfort zone with this piece,” she tells me.
Thermal, monochrome and variations of art noods also illuminate the inconsistency in content removed for violating vague community guidelines. (“We do allow exceptions around nudity and sexually explicit content for educational, documentary, scientific or artistic purposes,” the guidelines read.) But that didn’t help Britney Lee, 22, who posted four thermal and monochrome noods and a vlog announcing an auction on Instagram for a viral painting of a woman covering her breasts. The noods remained, but the vlog was immediately removed by TikTok.
TikTok’s appealing process can take days to resolve, and Lee won the appeal for the vlog four days later. By the time TikTok approved her reposting the video, Lee had already sold the painting to a buyer. “It wasn’t worth it,” Lee says of trying to repost the vlog.
In total, TikTok has removed three of Lee’s videos. She’s now worried her account may be shadowbanned. Her most recent video has roughly a third of her normal viewership, she says. Lee is pivoting back to original Hydro Flask and AirPod case designs to avoid further punishment. “I’m just going to paint more wholesome things, probably more covered up, and [I’ll] see what happens,” Lee says.
Dealing with TikTok’s unclear guidelines can be worth the hassle. Just as going viral on TikTok helped launch the music careers of artists like Lil Nas X and Ava Max, painters and other visual artists depend on the app to boost their networking and commission opportunities.
Before success on TikTok, Lee had 200 followers on Instagram. After her thermal nood went viral earlier this month, she now has nearly 4,300 on Instagram, spilling over from her 114,000 followers on TikTok. Quickly, Lee monetized the newfound attention, making $600 from 50 commissions in six days. “TikTok is the only thing that really helped me grow. I don’t credit any other platform for it,” Lee says.
The ability to go viral on TikTok allows college students and burgeoning artists to receive immediate feedback for their work. “I’m trying to create and see what suits me best from drawing to painting to customizing and basically any art there is,” Fabio Rontgen, a graphic design student in the Netherlands, tells me. He’s one of few men to draw their chiseled torsos.
The most successful TikTok artists also have a cynical eye. Amber Wright, 22, tells me she’s received many requests to draw underage users’ noods, but she will respond to adults only. “It’s only been like three or four people who have messaged me that have actually been over 18. That’s why I haven’t done too many,” she says.
Artists like Jade Bryant, a student at Purdue University, require that commission requests come through Instagram, where she can gain a better understanding of who her client is. If they’re adults, Bryant, 22, is happy to paint their noods. “[The trend] helps us appreciate how beautiful they actually are. Sometimes all you need is a different perspective,” she says.