Public Nudity: It's Different in New York City (Sort of)

One of Andy Golub's models on a subway platform.
​Being naked in public is a crime, right? Well, not always (unless you're in Berkeley). Which is to say, sometimes it can be a crime (if you're in San Francisco), but you probably won't get arrested. Then again, sometimes it clearly isn't a crime (if you're in New York), but you get arrested nonetheless.

What are we talking about? A New York City artist named Andy Golub, and how his recent run-ins with the NYPD further illustrate the complexities of public nudity, free expression, what the law is, and how it's applied. California law prohibits public nudity when it offends someone, but cops in San Francisco have a hard time enforcing it. New York's law, we're told, allows public nudity for artistic expression, but at least one member of the NYPD seems to have intentionally overlooked that.

Let us explain.

Andy Golub and Yumi-U.
​Golub paints naked people. He doesn't paint pictures of naked people, rather, he applies paint to the bodies of people wearing no clothes. And his work is stunning.

Doing this in public is part of Golub's process. He says he likes working with models because it's more interactive and unpredictable than, say, painting on an object or canvas. He says he never knows what he'll paint when he starts, but he has learned to let each model's personality and energy help determine the outcome.

"It's a really an amazing experience," Golub says.

​Painting people in public lets anyone watch the joint creation being made, and it's a more direct way to show his work than, say, photographs in a gallery.

He adds -- without a hint of smugness or irony -- "I've always been into public art."

Golub has a lawyer named Ron Kuby, who specializes in civil rights cases and criminal defense. Kuby says that although laws regarding public nudity vary by state and municipality, New York's statute is clear: Public nudity is allowed when it involves performances or acts related to artistic expression. He says municipalities can pass their own laws forbidding all public nudity, but New York City has not.

"We still like to fancy ourselves as the creative capital of the planet," Kuby says.

Regardless, Golub and his models have been arrested twice this year near Times Square. The first was a case of two young officers not knowing the law, and Kuby is still working to have those arrests voided. To head off future arrests, he said a memo was circulated throughout city police channels specifying that Golub and the models were acting within the law.

Andy Golub
​It seems to be the tiniest piece of clothing that led to the second arrest. Golub says until recently his models wore g-strings, but in August he and the models decided to go without. Golub said the first time that happened, "there was a real strange quiet, almost like the calm before the storm. But we just kept painting, and everything was fine."

Nonetheless, it apparently was too much for one person.

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