At 4am in an English park, a man with a megaphone told me to strip.
Thankfully, I wasn’t the only person he was talking to. The crowds of people around me had all been waiting a few hours for this command, and none of us hesitated to obey.
As clothes began to fly and the bare limbs of strangers began to appear, I pulled off my t-shirt and bent down to an innocuous little tub of paint which lay on the grass with its lid off. The stuff inside was a pale blue colour, and I couldn’t help questioning what we were about to do.
Mainly: how on earth was this paint going to cover my entire naked body?
The naked story behind Tunick’s blue paint
Over three thousand people had gathered together in Queen’s Gardens in the northern city of Hull before dawn that morning. I’d crossed the grass with an inadvertent posse: composed of my London flatmate and a few other guests from our hotel, it also included one middle-aged man who’d been a naturist for years and his jovial friend who’d already been in thirteen different naked photoshoots all around the world.
Yet this particular project was different to most. Commissioned by the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull as part of the city’s status as the UK’s Capital of Culture in 2017, the American photographer Spencer Tunick had been invited to create his unique brand of live installation art.
Famous for his mass naked photoshoots, Tunick’s plan for Hull was to draw on the city’s maritime history – and he needed a few thousand naked bodies to do it.After we’d handed over our model release forms and were each assigned one of four numbers – B1, B2, B3, or B4 – we stood around making nervous chatter as the dark sky above us gave way to a milky pink sunrise. Eventually the man with the megaphone appeared at the top of a stepladder: a somewhat awkward Tunick, who introduced his assistants to the crowd and asked us to please not apply our paint until we were told.
That request came a bit too late for the various eager blue faces who’d been painting themselves for a while already.
“OK guys, time to lose the clothes! Everybody get naked!”
My arms received the blue first, quickly followed by chest and stomach, thighs and feet. Caking it onto my face, massaging it into my eyebrows, even feeling it harden over my hair: as it turned out, the blue paint did a perfectly good job of covering every inch of me. Even if I did have to ask for a few helping hands to get the hard to reach places (note to self: the small of your back and the sides of your neck are easily missed).
Within minutes I was standing in a sea of pale blue figures. Craning my head above them, I spotted groups of light green and dark blue too. The megaphone commanded us to start walking towards the Rose Garden, and I scooped up a last glob of paint and carried it for emergency touchups as I stumbled over people’s bags to catch up with my friend.
“Remember this feeling… remember exactly what this looks like,” I kept telling myself, glancing around at the surreal sight of painted bodies filing past me in the silvery light.Eyes gleamed and teeth shone bright as we congregated in our first location: a manicured garden area laid out like a ship’s wheel. Spencer Tunick was standing high above us on a hotel balcony, and it was easy to forget the real purpose of our naked state.
We giggled and joked and tried our best not to accidentally look down, shoulders hunching in the occasional breeze which blew past. It was a hell of a lot chillier without any clothes.
“Hey, you! Get out of my photograph!”
Spencer’s voice rang out, sharp and precise, as he spotted a few errant passers-by who’d attempted to duck behind the blue bodies and stay in shot. He was having none of it: the artist, clearly in his comfort zone, knew exactly what his rules were. Clothed people were absolutely not allowed.
The silence gradually settled, and suddenly I understood the surreal magic of what Spencer was creating. Three thousand painted faces turned upward in his direction; three thousand bare backs held themselves straight and proud. Barely a twitch amongst us.
One audible click from Spencer’s film camera filtered through the microphone, and then we were done. First image in the bag.
The instruction to continue walking came from Spencer’s assistant Steve, and the crowd turned as if it was one massive body. Stepping from the pavement onto an asphalt road, a strong gust of wind hit; I felt the alien sensations of asphalt on bare toes and how vulnerable it felt to be so exposed.
All the roads we walked along had been closed specifically for the photoshoot, but I couldn’t help feeling like we were doing something wrong. What were the laws on indecent exposure in the UK, anyway?
Some quintessential British humour
The world Tunick had invited us to inhabit felt post-apocalyptic. Traffic lights changed colour with no vehicles to watch them; seagulls squawked above a moving human sea; statues carved a hundred years ago looked down imperiously our naked and giggling forms. I wondered what those sculptors would have made of this art.
While we stood in the middle of Alfred Gelder Street, Spencer rose to the same height as the statues via his cherry picker machine and issued his now familiar megaphone commands. They were usually aimed at Steve.
“Steve, I didn’t ask them to walk!”
Steve, I didn’t tell them to freeze!”
Co-ordinating three thousand excitable naked people at 5am is hard enough. When they’re mainly British, the organiser faces another problem. Brits are somehow predisposed to good-naturedly mock a situation – and Steve’s name quickly became the perfect vehicle.
Low, faux-ominous rumbles of “Steeeeeeeeve…!” began to echo through the crowds whenever Spencer mentioned him, and whenever we could sense the positive atmosphere might be starting to wane. After such a depressing and dividing week in English politics, I suddenly had such a loving wave for my fellow Brits.
Voluntarily standing stark naked in a group of strangers in the name of art, yet still happily mocking our organisers, was exactly how we as a nation express ourselves.
It felt fantastic.
Next came the wonderfully bizarre moment when Spencer asked us to lie down for the first time. If you’ve seen photos from Spencer’s shoots before, you’ll know this pose is a stalwart favourite of his – yet I still couldn’t quite fathom it. Lie down naked on an asphalt road? Where cars usually belong?!
Yet lie down we did, and despite feeling somewhat like a cold limp fish, there’s no denying that the moment really cemented our collective sense that we were all in this together. Hands and legs resting against parts of my body were accompanied by muttered apologies from their owners, and when someone sneezed a chorus of ‘Bless you!’ rose up around us.
Split by colour, but not by purpose
Spencer’s concept of painting us in four different colours stemmed from the blue shades featured in paintings of the sea at the Ferens Art Gallery. He took samples from painted waves and re-created the colours into bodypaint form, so in effect we truly were the waters of Hull.
And what better way to illustrate that than by covering the city’s streets with those same colours once again?For the rest of that early morning Spencer directed us down different alleyways, congregated in our different watery shades. We sat, stood and lay down again, leaving smudged prints of our feet, arms, hands and bums on each surface we touched.
It wasn’t even 7am when the final photos were snapped on Hull’s Scale Lane Bridge – a location I didn’t manage to reach, as there was only space for eight hundred participants.
My friend and I tiptoed back along the pavements towards Queen’s Gardens where our little piles of abandoned clothes were waiting, suddenly more aware of our blue state. Without Steve and Spencer to direct us, we were no longer part of this project.
Instead, we were just wandering survivors from a blue paint explosion.
Unexpected unity in blue
I hadn’t considered how we’d look once the three thousand participants parted ways. Walking back towards our hotel, I kept spotting blue faces behind steering wheels who gave us little nods of solidarity and green-tinged cyclists speeding past.
The sense of community we’d felt that morning managed to hang on, even if we weren’t all aware of it.
After a couple of showers and some vigorous scrubbing at the bottoms of my feet, we gathered around the TV to watch the morning news while I scrolled through social media in search of evidence.
And that’s when I really started to see just how beautiful the Sea of Hull had been.It’s strange when you realise what events can influence your perception of a place. Walking around Hull city centre that afternoon the blue and green paint stains kept on jumping out, like visual remnants of a secret which only a few thousand people really understood,
It was a realisation that even as we left our own little mark of the city, Hull also became an inadvertent part of my own history.
Now, it’s a place tied up with themes of body confidence, self-empowerment and the most wonderful experience of being immediately included in a vibrant, beautiful community of strangers.
I wasn’t quite expecting that sense of togetherness to be so strong. Nor did I envisage the sheer, blinding joy at simply being myself, with zero accoutrements. Nothing to hide behind. Nothing to mask us.
On a #SeaOfHull Facebook group a week later, people are still joyfully posting photos of the blue which still marks them: scraps of stubborn paint behind the ears, staining toenails, streaks of hair. Leftover spots on shoes and glasses.
Inadvertently, there’s now a little community that’s stretching beyond the confines of a chilly grey morning in a northern English city. When we were all naked, and undeniably blue.
Want more blue nakedness?
In the spirit of togetherness with my fellow greens and blues, here are some other experiences from that morning:
- Louise Edwards – ‘When Nude Became Normal’
- Inês Varela-Silva – ‘Going naked in public is a joyful release for mind and body’
- Sarah Freeman – ‘Why I Went Naked in the Name of Art’
- Claire Boynton – ‘Is My Body Too Bluetylicious for You, Babe?‘
Plus a final quote from Claire’s article which I simply loved:
“Everyone was imperfect – and so wonderfully, so magically perfect at the same time. For the first time in my life, I realised that it wasn’t me who didn’t fit in, it was everyone who didn’t fit in. It lit a glow inside me that is still burning. It changed me, and I can’t quite explain how.”