It’s been just over two years since I posed naked with 2,753 other people on the edge of Cleveland, Ohio.
It’s been just over two years since I stood shivering in the middle of a park behind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where I pulled my T-shirt over my head and dropped my pants and boxer briefs for a couple of hours.
All very legal.
All very much for art.
All said and done and plastered all over the news at the time.
I haven’t really thought about that June day much since, but this past week public nudity found its way back into the headlines because the small, and famously nude-friendly town of Brattleboro, Vermont, has finally put an ordinance on its display of flesh.
Brattleboro, they say, has long been a live-and-let-live town where skinny dipping was never a big deal. But ever since a group of teens started hanging out in a public parking lot in their pubic-haired suits, along with this summer’s well-documented account of some old guy, a tourist from out of state, walking around downtown in nothing more than a fanny pack, the town has erected a hard stance on public nudity.
A few teens and an old dude seemed to ruin it for everybody.
Isn’t that always the case?
I started thinking about that time when I did that Spencer Tunick photograph, and so I dug out the notebook where I wrote about the whole thing while eating a free Chipotle burrito.
It would be nice to put this story to rest.
It’s been edited and TNB’ed, and here’s the account:
June 26, 2004
It was on New Year’s Eve when I heard some friends discuss the Spencer Tunick project.
The famous photographer was looking for volunteers to pose naked in a Cleveland public space and the buzz was loud.
Everyone asked each other if they would, or could do it, and I simply said that it sounded like an opportunity to do something crazy in a controlled environment.
I said it simply, with beer and Champagne fighting and calling each other derogatory names in my stomach.
The next day – the first day of the year – after renewing my gym membership and pushing away a bag of those fiery Cheetos I love so much, I signed up for the event.
Cleveland was to be Tunick’s first legal shoot in the United States; he had been arrested five times in New York City for doing his thing. At the time, the artist had gotten naked masses to not smile for the camera in Spain and Australia and in a half-dozen other countries around the world. His picture in Montreal, where over 2,500 people staved off fiery Cheetos or the dill pickled-flavored version of them that I hope are available up there, set a record for the most nude persons together in North America.
When I signed up in January I expected to be mortified and photographed in less than a month.
But over 4,000 people signed up and the shoot had to be moved from an indoor location to somewhere outside – causing the shoot to be delayed indefinitely as a date was being selected.
Over the next six months I received emailed updates.
The location was to be kept secret until the week before to lessen the amount of voyeurs and news crews.
I read about the June 26 confirmation date, and I clicked on the link to see the T-shirt I could buy after the shooting ended.
I read about the amount of people that were filling out applications and I read about the importance of its secrecy.
My close friends were in disbelief when I told them and my sister, who I thought of as a liberal, became angry when I described exactly what I would be doing. My oldest brother, who I had been squatting with at the time, considered me crazy but laughed and read all the emails I pulled up for him.
Classic Rock woke me up at 3:30 that morning and I pushed snooze twice. I had to be at the 9th Street Pier by 4:30.
I half-heartedly combed my hair while I stood in front of the mirror with rings growing under my eyes. I wore gray rip-away Adidas pants and a black T-shirt that read “Defend Cleveland” across its chest.
I listened to the latest Beastie Boys album as I negotiated the dark streets.
I worried about the chilly weather and what my dick would look like when I introduced it to thousands of people at once.
I told it to make me proud.
Or to at least behave.
Traffic at the pier was heavy and I worried about arriving late. Young people walked past my idling car and I took a sharp right, parking in a lot where I once tailgated before a Browns game.
I sat for a moment of silence in my car, taking in the moment, watching hoards of people stream past.
I recognized a guy who worked at my local coffee shop. He and his girlfriend wore matching white robes.
My Nike sandals were loud as I speed-walked toward Lake Erie.
“Hello all you people I will see naked,” I said in my head to the thousands waiting in line with their white pieces of paper.
The tension certainly was weird – sudden bursts of laughter came from previously mute people, screams came from obviously drunk participants, hands covered faces, sets of eyes looked for vindication in those around them and when they couldn’t find it they locked onto the pavement.
Most people came in couples and small groups. They were young and old, male and female, big and small. All colors.
I was young and by myself.
I was growing more pale by the cold minute.
I looked at girls who I looked forward to seeing naked and looked away from all those people who I would rather not.
“This is art and not perverted and this guy is a famous artist and this is for art and it’s not that weird if you think about because we were all born naked and it’s natural to be naked and hey, look at her,”I said in my head to the thousands waiting in line with their white pieces of paper.
A guy I knew from work, Mike SomethingIcantremember, walked by and I tapped his arm.
“I hope I don’t see you in there,” I said and we both laughed a nervous string of laughs.
I paced nervously behind the Rock Hall, hands deep in my pockets. Some fat guy stripped and walked around aimlessly, naked and smug.
Whispers and eye-rolling.
Laughs and scoffs.
And that was just from me.
At 5:30 helicopters hovered overhead and a bullhorn demanded attention from the southwestern corner.
I walked toward the front and Spencer Tunick’s assistant began with thank-yous to Cleveland, its port authority, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and to the people (me!) who had woken up so early to become pieces of art.
Hecklers called out and instantly became obnoxious, but directions were given from a short-haired Tunick who stood tall on a ladder.
Sunrise would be the start of it all.
A beautiful girl my age paced back in forth in front of me and spoke into a recorder.
Punks, hippies, and college students surrounded me and bounced in anticipation.
I handled my balls through my pockets – stretching my scrotum and trying to keep everything warm.
Oh reader, you’ll be fine.
I need to get this off my chest.
You know what I mean.
We were told to disrobe and we did.
We were all naked.
I was naked.
That beautiful girl with the recorder was naked.
That dude right there had nothing on.
Just like that woman. And him and her and her and I-can’t-tell-from-the-back.
Leaving a couple of thousand piles of clothes behind like there had been an alien abduction with very strict rules, the entirely pink and brown crowd padded toward the pier.
The first photograph called for us to cover the pier all the way up to East 9th Street and to lie on our left sides, facing the city.
I passed people who must have gone through emergency surgeries.
I passed by men and women who held gallons of cottage cheese in their buttocks.
I never knew so many people had tattoos.
With the morning wind of the city chilling my butt crack, things officially got strange.
I realized that I wasn’t really naked anymore.
If we were all naked, then I wasn’t naked.
I felt like just another wild animal in a wild-animal pack.
Like I lived in the future where clothes were so 21st Century.
Like what it might have been like if George Orwell had added a few more chapters to “Animal Farm.”
Like if in this reality, the humans never broke that one fun fact that we’re the only species on the globe to wear clothes.
Did you know there are 1.5 million species on Earth?
This would surely take some time to get used to the idea, if we decide to just suddenly live like the rest of them. I bet after 16 to 20 months the nakedness would cease being the first topic of conversation.
“Yeah. Nice to meet you. So, uh, can you believe we’re all still doing this? Pretty crazy, right? Oooh. Bummer back hair. How’s your feet?”
My feet slapped the pavement.
Middle-aged women held hands.
So did young couples.
I walked alone.
But I was pretty fine with it.
I kept walking toward the city of Cleveland, all but certain that others were observing and making mental notes of my body for whatever story they would be writing two years later.
Finally I was told that I had gone far enough.
An early morning garbage truck driver stuck at a light noticed us all and he waved.
We waved back and shouted.
The general public was nowhere to be seen as security had been tighter than that dude’s abs. I did see some lonely man take a few pictures from the sidewalk and he was immediately ushered away.
I turned around quickly, facing the lake and a sea of human chests and pubic hair, and then I turned around again to look up at the skyscrapers.
A young black man on my left cracked witty jokes that kept everyone around him laughing.
We were instructed to get on the ground and we did.
(The above is the free photo all volunteers received months later in the mail… I’m somewhere around that arrow tip.)
Five minutes later, thousands of naked men and women swarmed the park in search of their Adidas pants and shirts.
Walking as far as I did up that pier, I was one of the last of the pink bodies searching for the right pile of clothes.
Suddenly I was more naked than Jennifer Connelly on a movie set.
I felt my entire body blush.
Tunick congratulated the clothed us.
Then he instructed us to walk back to the pier where we would take single-sex photographs, and the women would go first.
And there I soon sat – cross-legged in my damp Adidas pants – watching a thousand or so women stand up and strip.
They paraded toward the dock, trying to maneuver through all those sitting men who had their necks pulled up.
At first it was like a dream come true, but it soon felt terribly creepy as the women found themselves in an unmoving, naked conga line.
After the bottleneck of blonds and brunettes and grays finally disappeared, the women were positioned in the shadow of a steamship – facing the camera and lying on their right side.
This Lake Erie-like harem took ten minutes to photograph, and the men clapped when it was over and the ladies skittered back to their clothes.
As I waited for the women to get dressed and for the next set of directions, I set up a small base next to a light post and behind a pack of punks where one guy had tattoos all over his face, a ring connecting his nostrils, and implanted horns under the skin of his skull.
From where I stood over him, I studied the scars from such an idiotic decision.
How did this guy buy milk with those horns?
How did this guy ask for directions?
Before I could muse on what his mother thought the first time she saw the horns, I was told to get naked and to get in the grass.
We were herded like animals into a fresh pasture.
With Browns Stadium in the background, the men were told to roll up into a ball with our rears toward the camera.
Many, many jokes.
(Photo by Herb Ascherman/Thomas Mulready)
The women, clothed and laughing, stood rambunctiously behind the photographer. One flashed her tits, I remember. And I also remember being a little ho-hum about it given the circumstances.
We were then instructed to shift to the left and lie on our right sides where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would be seen in the picture.
To our collective surprise, we were asked to lean our shoulders on the nearest man’s legs. Without much pause we complied. I rested my head on a hairy man’s legs and we laughed until Tunick said he wouldn’t take the picture until there were no smiles to be seen.
The last pose had every man lying flat on his back and closing his eyes.
The sun was totally out now, warming our bodies.
And it felt great.
I felt peaceful.
Minutes later I bee-lined for my lamp post.
And then that was that.
I grabbed a few Chipotle coupons for free burritos and checked out the $15 T-shirts for sale. I considered buying one, but my pockets only carried my car keys and underwear.
I drove home, stripped again, and snuck back into bed.
Hopefully the town of Brattleboro doesn’t give up entirely on its downtown nude thing.
Someplace has to have that.
If there’s one thing I learned from that day in June over two years ago, it’s that you can get horns implanted in your skull.
If there’s one thing I learned from that day in June over two years ago, it’s that you’re not really naked when everyone else is naked too. And there’s something to all of that, right? When there’s the consensus that it’s okay for everyone to do something out of the ordinary, then it becomes as ordinary and as ho-hum as a woman flashing her tits at a nudist shoot. Someplace definitely has to have that.*
*I don’t think this paragraph makes a point.