In the most literal sense, the Mardi Gras celebration is the three days prior to the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. It's the last opportunity for partying and indulgence in food and drink. In practice, Mardi Gras…or Carnival, as it is called in many countries…is usually celebrated for a full week before the start of Lent.
Celebrations take place all over the world with the most famous modern day festivities being in New Orleans, Louisiana; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Nice, France; and Cologne, Germany.
Even though Mardi Gras is a Christian festival, it dates back to the pre-Christian spring fertility rites and embodies many of the traditions of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the early Middle Ages, after converting pagan tribes to Christianity, the Catholic Church was still unable to abolish all the ancient traditions. To combat this, the Church ended up taking many ancient feasts and festivals originally celebrated in honor of pagan gods and adapted them to Christian beliefs. An example of the pagan roots: today revelers on parade floats still dress as Bacchus, the Greek god of wine.
The first Mardi Gras celebration in the United States was near modern day New Orleans on March 3, 1699, but it was the mid 1800s before parade organizations, known as krewes, came into being. The first Mardi Gras parade was held in New Orleans on February 24, 1854, by the Krewe of Comus. They began the tradition of a parade with floats followed by a ball for the krewe and their guests. The official colors of Mardi Gras were chosen by Rex, King of Carnival, in 1892 and given their meaning—purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.
But what about that popular activity that has become a seemingly integral part of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, much to the chagrin of the festival purists? Women pulling up their shirts and flashing their bare breasts to procure some worthless plastic beads?
Exactly where did this tradition come from?
Well, first of all, it's not really a tradition. It's more along the lines of what has become a traditional activity in the same vein as getting stupid drunk and passing out now seems to fall into that same 'traditional' category. Over the years more and more media attention has been directed toward the drunken revelry that occurs on Bourbon Street which has helped in defining flashing as a traditional part of the Mardi Gras celebration.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point-of-view, flashing in exchange for beads is mostly limited to the New Orleans' French Quarter. And even in the French Quarter, it's an illegal activity. Women flashing their bare breasts run the risk of being arrested.
Maybe flashing is not a true tradition, but you can't deny that it has become a custom. After all, the history of wild Mardi Gras behavior comes from celebrating the last day before Lent—Lent being a time of atonement. And this naturally lends itself to activities of excess and craziness.
Which apparently has come to include flashing.
But there is one crazy excess even more daring than the momentary baring of the female breasts known as flashing. And what, you may ask, could possibly be crazier than flashing and still be done in public? And the answer is having clothes painted on your bare skin. There are artists who specialize in this. It probably started as something simple and basic like face painting, but has grown to include full body artistic renderings. At a casual glance, it appears that the person is clothed (albeit skin tight clothing). But on closer inspection, you discover that's far from the truth. Some of these examples shown above are basic and others are quite elaborate.