Masking Tape: The Artist’s Urge to Wrap | David Rufo

There are many iconic images of boxers getting their hands taped before a bout: a gritty yet elegant photograph from the early 1930s by Willard Van Dyke titled Boxer’s Hands[1]; a variety of black and white photographs from the 1960s of the legendary trainer Angelo Dundee wrapping the hands of Muhammad Ali [2]; a 4000 year-old Mesopotamian terracotta plaque, an ancient Egyptian relief, and an early Mycenaean amphora depicting boxers with their hands and wrists wrapped [3]. But I was surprised when I saw a nine-year old student with her hands and wrists encased in masking tape as if she were waiting for the bell to ring so she could take out Sonny Liston with a right hook to the chin.

Last year I ordered a carton of masking tape for classroom projects. During the first week of school I required the students to inventory and organize the classroom supplies as part of a math lesson. After the exercise, the students knew where the supplies were stored and were allowed access to them. The masking tape became so popular that all 48 rolls had been used up by January. The tape was not used on teacher directed projects but on the students’ self-initiated creative endeavors.

My students used masking tape as a medium for countless creations. One student created a frowning cartoon character with a sword protruding from his head and two X’s serving as eyes on a table surface.  Another made a Poison Dart Frog relief that she hung on the wall while a third student crafted a device she referred to as a “loop tool.” Every day the students came up with new creative uses for masking tape: mini-basketball courts, key chains, lassos, handbags, cases, decorative mats, and realistic and abstract sculptures.

Using masking tape as adornment was one of the first creative applications in my classroom and one that remains popular today. Students wrapped their fingers, wrists, and hands, or created facial features such as sideburns, mustaches, and beards. Around the same time I began to find a variety of pencils, pens, magic markers, and sticks carefully wrapped like Chachapoya mummies or densely packed Emperor Moth cocoons.

By late October, faculty members began sharing their concerns about fourth grade students walking through the hallways with wrapped hands, fingers, and wrists. For adults it was easy to mistake the wraps as expressions of ensuing violence. George Bellow’s 1909 painting Stag at Sharkeys epitomizes the “dangerous, animal-like combat” [4] associated with boxing. Since then, prizefighting in America has become a legally regulated activity but remains a controversial topic ever since its arrival from England in the eighteenth century [4]. Additionally, the student hand wraps were not covered with heavily padded boxing gloves, so they looked similar to the fingerless grappling gloves worn by mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters. During MMA competitions two contestants “wearing minimal protective equipment unleash a myriad of full force punches, elbow strikes, knee strikes, kicks, stomps, neck chokes, joint manipulations, body throws, and other grappling techniques against each other” [5].

I viewed the hand wraps initially as a mere fad. I thought of them as aggressive looking accouterments that used up classroom supplies and at times became a distraction. But, a year later, kids continue to be drawn to this activity. Recently, I watched as students wrapped: the winding motion combined with the zipping sound of the tape coming off the roll was relaxing, assuring, even meditative.

Perhaps there is something to the act of wrapping that is fundamentally human. Ancient man wrapped mummies, gifts are wrapped, and wrapping has had a role in the modern and postmodern aesthetic.  In 1966 the artist Joseph Beuys created an artwork titled Homogeneous Infiltration for Piano by wrapping a grand piano in felt. Beuys believed his art had therapeutic qualities [6] and others recognized this quality in his art, as Will Gompertz wrote that Homogeneous Infiltration for Piano “draws you in and calms you down” [7]. Christo and Jeanne-Claude are famous for wrapping objects as small as tin cans and as large as the Reichstag museum in Berlin, and they mention the “inexplicable urge” to create [8]. According to researchers Lili De Petrillo and Ellen Winner “The assumption that the arts serve a therapeutic function underlies the practice of art therapy” [9]. Educator and artist Brent Wilson made reference to the widely used “self-administered art therapy of children” [10].

Whenever I inquired about the masking tape wraps the students would talk about how they created them rather than what they represented: “You get toilet paper and you put it around your hand and you hold it with your thumb. Then you get tape and wrap it around” (Personal communication October 27, 2011). “In the start of the year we used to put toilet paper on our arms so the tape wouldn’t hurt our arms. Then we taped them up” (Personal communication June 1, 2012).

Even after witnessing it up close for two years I still don’t fully understand the attraction the hand wrapping activity holds for my students. Maybe for some it’s a type of therapy. For others it might satisfy a mysterious creative urge. I may never find out the reason, but I respect my students’ creative agency and firmly believe that artistic expression must be initiated from within in order to be meaningful [11]. Next year I will once again order 48 rolls of masking tape and see what happens.


[1] San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (2012). Retrieved September 25, 2012 from

[2] Horne, N. (2012, February 2). Muhammad Ali’s beloved trainer Angelo Dundee dies at 90. The Week. Retrieved September 24, 2012 from

[3] Murray, S.R. (2010). Boxing gloves of the ancient world. Journal of Combative Sport. Retrieved September 25, 2012 from

[4] Haywood, R. (1988). George Bellows’s “Stag at Sharkey’s”: Boxing, violence, and male identity. Smithsonian Studies in American Art, 2(2), 3-15.

[5] Buse, G.J. (2006). No holds barred sport fighting: A 10 year review of mixed martial arts competition. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 40, 169-172.

[6] Cutaia, S. (2009, August 20). Allied Worlds. Wave, 34. Retrieved October 6, 2012 from

[7] Gompertz, W. (2009, March 5). My life in art: How Joseph Beuys convinced me of the power of conceptual art. The Guardian. Retrieved October 6, 2012 from 

[8] Castro, J. (2004). A Matter of Passion: A Conversation with Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Sculpture (Washington, D.C.), 23(3), 28-35.

[9] De Petrillo, L., & Winner, E. (2005). Does art improve mood? A test of a key assumption underlying art therapy. Art Therapy, 22(4), 205-212.

[10] Wilson, B. (1976). Little Julian’s Impure Drawings: Why Children Make Art. Studies in Art Education, 17(2), 45-61.

[11] Wikstrom, B.M. (2005). Communicating via expressive arts: The natural medium of self-expression for hospitalized children. Pediatric Nursing, 31(6), 480-506.

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