Naked on a New York Street—for Art
A flaccid human penis painted sea-foam green isn’t what one generally anticipates encountering on her way bank from the ATM on a sunny afternoon. I could have walked by the man to which that penis belonged and his peers, who were also naked and covered in body paint in varying degrees of completion, but curiosity got the best of me.
The models stood outside of the Half King, a bar in Manhattan’s Chelsea, known more for their decent beer prices than being the makeshift prep site for human canvas works. Five men and two women of varying ages were entirely or mostly naked as psychedelic swirls or tribal streaks of orange, blue, yellow, green, red, and white were painted on them—and as they painted each other (an activity less about performance art and more to save time, I would later learn).
Most were white and in their mid- to late 40s, though there were also models of color and ones who appeared to be in their 20s and 30s. They ranged from yoga teacher-toned to affably soft around the edges. Regardless of their physiques, they seemed only too happy to run paint brushes over each other’s lips, toes, and genitals, while patrons ate hamburgers and drank Blue Moon about four feet away from them.
The men and women were stripping down for Andy Golub, who has made it his mission to promote body painting. He's been painting humans for the past eight years, having moved from other unconventional canvases, like tables and cars, and specifically painted them in public for the past six.
Golub was responsible for the inaugural Bodypainting Day last July, during which he painted over 40 models in New York’s Columbus Circle and has become a sort of advocate after getting arrested along with his model in 2011 (they successfully got the charges overturned because full nudity is legal in New York City for the purposes of art work).
“I don’t really like that art is relegated to the private space, and the public space is owned by advertising,” Golub told me as he painted one of the male model’s backsides a bright orange. “I think the idea of art is people connecting with each other and interacting with each other. I think that’s important. Maybe back in the day people did that all the time, but now we can’t because there’s too much money to be made.”
There was a certainly a nobleness to his artistic mission, though a woman I presumed to be his PR rep handed me a laminated postcard advertising Golub’s work and contact information suspiciously fast.
Michelle James, another body paint artist assisting Golub, said that body painters can make a decent living, even though they can’t “sell” their finished pieces. In addition to selling photographs of their body paint creations, these artists are in hot demand for “entertainment purposes—runways, nightclubs,” said James. “You can charge per piece or hourly. We make a pretty good salary when we’re busy.” And body painting is only becoming more popular, “especially now that we can paint here in New York City without getting arrested,” James added, referencing Golub’s legal victory. “It’s really becoming mainstream, and it’s exciting.”
And no one was as excited as the models. They were downright evangelical about Golub’s artistic values and mission; so much so that I wondered if Golub had slipped them something in their beers. “While I’m painting people and covering their bodies, I’m stripping them away of all the—well, you finish that sentence,” Golub says with a smile to me as the pause briefly hangs. A model jumped to the rescue. “All the walls built around us,” chimed Oya, a 45-year-old man with a giant white heart painted on his chest and a bi-colored penis. He said he’d never modeled for Golub or anyone else before, but said—dreamily, serenely—the experience is “great.”
It was also the first time for Ava, a 45-year-old German photographer. “I love it,” she said, with a laugh and a mouth literally full of white paint. As I fretted over whether it was safe for her ingest the body paint, she extolled its benefits. “It's great how the brush feels on the skin.” For Ava, serving as a model fulfills a larger artistic goal. “It's a really nice experience because I am on the other side of the lens. I ask people to get naked for me, so I want to give back,” she said. “I am happy to contribute my nudity to this artist.”
All the models I interviewed talked as if Golub was the one helping them fulfill some larger personal project, not the other way around. Richard, a 49-year-old, talked about his first time getting painted by Golub as a liberating, almost spiritual experience. “The first time was in Times Square. It scared the shit out of me, [but] in five minutes, it felt natural,” he told me. “It was the one time I was able to present myself to the world exactly as I am.”
Rather ironically, the models seemed much more at ease—in fact, joyful—than any of the passersby. A few pedestrians would briefly stop and try to subtly snap a picture on their iPhones with great anxiety over being noticed for their gawking.
One of the models, a middle-aged man with a trippy blue labyrinth painted down his back and buttocks seemed blissfully oblivious or, just as likely, didn’t care that smartphones were aimed at his backside mural. The models were only too happy to have photos taken, and one took a selfie with a brother in (body-painted) arms. Instead, it was the onlookers who went out of their way to be covert, seeming almost ashamed to briefly stare and snag a photo of the clearly unusual occurrence.
New Yorkers’ unwillingness to be interrupted or amazed by activities that would be fairly outrageous in any other city is notorious. We pride ourselves on being unfazed. So, people sped by the models less out of puritanical deference to the naked bodies, but to keep up their steely reputations. It’s not the fear of seeming like a pervert peeping Tom, but a rubbernecking tourist.
This was all but confirmed when I spoke to two female New Yorkers in their 60s who paused to look at the models. “It’s okay,” said one of them in a flat voice. “It’s a body,” said the other with a similar lack of enthusiasm. Then, after their brief, indulgent stare, the two of them took off down the street, clearly unimpressed.