On painted masks

One practice that is quite common within HEMA is painting fencing masks.  The fencing mask is the most common item of safety kit that a HEMAist can own, and so many HEMAists will personalise their masks. There are many possible reasons why a HEMA practitioner might paint their own mask: it may be so they can find their own mask quicker if a group of masks are left together, or it could be so that they can identify themselves in photos more easily, or so that others in the HEMA community will recognise them more easily, or simply because they think the idea of a painted mask might look cool.

For quite some time, I wore a painted mask. Most recently, I wore a mask painted with a skull, and before that, I was borrowing a friend’s mask with a zombie/Jason design. When I got my mask back, freshly painted with a skull, I was very happy with it. The painting had been done well, it was very distinctive, and a few of the newer students said that the mask made it more intimidating to spar with me, which was very satisfying. After this I acquired a new mask, which hasn’t yet been painted. Taking time to think about exactly what I wanted to be painted on my new mask made me think about the entire practice of painting masks, and especially the problems associated with it. I was very happy with both of the painted masks I have used, but I have been thinking recently that the issue might be a little more complicated than simply having your mask painted because it looks cool, which was the only real consideration I ever had personally with regard to having a painted mask before.

Me, in my old mask painted with a skull. Photo copyright of Daniil Lapko.

Me, in my old mask painted with a skull.
Photo copyright of Daniil Lapko.

Lack of professionalism

No matter how much I might like wearing a mask with a skull on it, it is not the most professional look that I could have. For a student in HEMA club, this might not be as much of a problem, but as a professional instructor for the AHA, I should be presenting a professional image. Prospective students, or even members of the general public, that like the look of painted masks are unlikely to think less of me or my organisation if my mask isn’t painted, but students that don’t like the look of painted masks so much may think that my wearing a painted mask makes me look less serious.

This is critical if you are a professional instructor. It is even more important if you are running open days or displays to the public, where you should be presenting your best image. If you are an instructor, but do you do not instruct professionally, i.e. you are not paid for instructing, then I believe you should still act as if you were a professional, as I argued in My Updated 7 Rules for Instructors.

I said above that if you are just a student, this is not as much of a problem, but students should still act as ambassadors for their club or society, and dedicated students often go on to become instructors. As a student, it might be worth cultivating a more professional look. Besides, a dedicated student can easily go on to become an instructor themselves, so making their look into a professional one early on couldn’t harm.

Copyright and legal issues

Another issue worth considering is if you have a legal right to use the image you have painted on your mask. If you have a Space Marine, or a Star Wars, or a Marvel character design painted on your mask, do you have the legal right to have that design on your mask?

As a fencer, you are probably not going to face any problems because of this, but it may be something for people who can be hired to paint masks to think about. Even if you are unlikely to face legal consequences, it may still be worth considering a non-copyright design as an alternative.

The same issue can apply when using historic designs as well. You may want to paint a heraldic design on your mask thinking that this is a classier and more historically orientated alternative to some of the more common painted mask designs; however heraldry may be legally protected in your country, and again you may not have the legal right to paint a heraldic design on your mask.[1]

Fitting the established aesthetic

Something that occurred to me relatively recently is that I could think of lots of students that had painted masks, but I could think of very few international competitors or instructors with painted masks. I would be very happy if one day I was an internationally recognised instructor, and in the meantime, I would rather look like one of them than someone more likely to be a beginner.

Mask maintenance

Perhaps a slightly more minor point, but paint on masks will be worn off over time, and the more intensely and more often you spar, the faster this will occur. Depending on the design, it may take more or less time to touch it up, and some designs may even look a little better with some battle damage. Nonetheless, maintaining the quality of a painted design does give you yet another thing that you need to worry about when it comes to looking after your kit.

Appropriate designs

All that said, there still are positive aspects to having a painted mask, such as easier recognition for yourself or for your mask. Mask painting can also be a way to express either your own personality or could be another way for a club to show a shared aesthetic. In absence of national teams, having the flag of your country painted on your mask if you are one of the more successful fencers from your country could be appropriate as well.

While so far I’ve been talking about painted masks generally, maybe the problem isn’t with the concept of painting masks generally, but with un-professional mask designs. While the majority of painted mask designs are perhaps not quite so professional, other designs can be used. Geometric patterns can add some level of distinctiveness for a mask without being too distracting. One example of this that I found quite striking was William Bouillez of Oste du Griffon Noir’s mask: black, with a single white stripe, which then tied into the rest of his black and white outfit. Alternatively, there are some historic inspired designs that might not detract from how professional your image is. One of our members has a great helm painted on their mask, which I think works very well. Another has medieval alchemy symbols on his mask, and also on his mask overlay.

An AHA member, Cailean MacLennan, in his mask painted wth a great helm design. Photo copyright of Daniil Lapko.

An AHA member, Cailean MacLennan, in his mask painted wth a great helm design.
Photo copyright of Daniil Lapko.

While excluding any un-professional designs, such as stormtroopers/space marines/comic book characters etc. does limit your options, there are still are options available that can help to attain the positive aspects of having a painted mask, while avoiding the problems associated with many designs.

If you cannot think of any designs that you both like and don’t negatively affect the level of professionalism that you display, then it may be better to avoid painting your mask at all.



[1] For some more information on the legal situation with regards to heraldry in Scotland, please see Family Heraldry.

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One comment

  • Fascinating to understand more about how decoration and symbolism may have an impact on a fencer. For me it does have an impact – being “mesmerized” by a painted mask in sparring, even for a second or two is a distraction. It gets under the skin, it frustrates and annoys. It’s a challenge! Should it happen? For me, yes, absolutely. I can only imagine how a garish, brash, loud chavy landsknecht would have seemed in their time and their impact while fighting. The default uniform HEMA black seems to be missing something? Humans decorate and display for a reason and I sorta want to see and experience how this works out while fencing.