Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

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?

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

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.

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

[Image: The Guardian]

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.

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

“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.

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

[Image: Jon Super / Getty Images]

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.

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

[Image: Spencer Tunick]

“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.

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

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?

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

[Image: Hull Daily Mail]

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.

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

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.

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

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?

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

[Image: Jerome Ellerby]

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.

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

[Image: Jon Super/AFP/Getty Images]

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

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.

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

[Image: Danny Lawson]

 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.

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

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.

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

[Image: The Guardian]

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,

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

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.

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

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.

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

Want more blue nakedness?

In the spirit of togetherness with my fellow greens and blues, here are some other experiences from that morning:

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.”

Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

Would you ever strip naked in the name of art? Have you ever been naked in public (legally!) before? 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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36 Responses to Sea of Hull: Why I Got Naked & Blue with Three Thousand People

  1. LC July 17, 2016 at 8:03 pm #

    I was really interested in hearing your take on this and it didn’t disappoint! It’s interesting how when we are all literally stripped bare, we find that sense of connectedness with each other. What a lovely experience. Hope all the paint came off okay!

    • Flora July 18, 2016 at 11:30 am #

      Thanks so much LC! Yep, the majority of the paint was pretty easy to wash off – although I’ll admit to finding remnants days later in places I thought I’d scrubbed! :)

  2. Stephanie July 17, 2016 at 10:48 pm #

    A friend of mine did a pic similar to this (not sure if it was the same photographer) in New York a few years ago. This looks so cool!

    • Flora July 18, 2016 at 1:09 pm #

      I don’t think Tunick’s been allowed to do many outdoor shoots in the US but he definitely did one with just women in Grand Central Station which looked stunning! Maybe your friend was in that one?

  3. Nimish July 18, 2016 at 2:10 am #

    Hi Flora,
    When I first saw the photos of the Sea of Hull project I didn’t really think much about it. Thought it was just another one of those virality posts about people being naked for some art project. But reading your account here and the aspect of body confidence as a part of a group exercise, changes the dynamics altogether. Conceptually, it is a good idea to show the maritime history of the place. But the idea of a group of 3000 people going stark naked for this, voluntarily, is quite something in itself.
    Personally, I wouldn’t take off my clothes for a public project. I am not body confident. But if there were a huge group, I don’t know, maybe I would give it a thought. Having said that, I don’t foresee such strong public projects happening in India anyway:)
    But it’s really good to get a fresh perspective on this notion of art which uses live human subjects to make a statement.

    Regards,
    Nimish

    • Flora July 18, 2016 at 1:12 pm #

      Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Nimish :) It was certainly a fresh and somewhat challenging way to consider and view one’s own body, and I think that, despite many volunteers’ reservations, taking part in such an event helped hugely with people’s confidence. I wonder if Tunick has looked into similar projects in India? You’d probably be surprised at the amount of interest that these events drum up!

  4. gg2106 July 18, 2016 at 4:15 am #

    wow this is so cool. Everyone is united in blue. Good job guys.

    • Flora July 18, 2016 at 1:12 pm #

      Thanks GG! Glad the blue unity is obvious :)

  5. Flipflopped (@Flipflopbob) July 18, 2016 at 3:44 pm #

    Brilliant. I really wanted to attend, but it was too far. I did however get naked for the World Naked Bike Ride in Bristol, raising £500 for Prostate Cancer charity in the process. I wrote a blog about that experience if you’re interested :)

  6. Chris b July 18, 2016 at 7:25 pm #

    Captured the day perfectly

    • Flora July 19, 2016 at 8:34 am #

      Thanks Chris – glad you think so :)

  7. Flora July 19, 2016 at 9:05 am #

    Wonderful stuff – and congratulations for your body confidence journey! Seems like naturism has really changed you :)

  8. Rashaad July 20, 2016 at 5:50 pm #

    I’ve been naked in public legally relatively often – I’ve lived in Japan and gone to onsen many times. I’ve participated in the World Naked Bike Ride twice (once in York, England and once in Philadelphia) and… I once appeared in a Spencer Tunick photo installation (in New York hotel – the Four Seasons, if I’m not mistaken – in 2008).

    I envy you – in regards to being able to participate in the Hull installation. Blue is my favorite color and everyone looked so wonderful in blue. Is that you a picture of you in blue appearing with a friend in this blog article (toward the end)?

    I’ve read that many people who have participated in Spencer Tunick installations and/or the WNBR have a better sense of body image afterwards. I’ve felt better about my body after seeing pictures of myself on Flickr after the bike ride. I’m a big fan of Spencer Tunick because he is very creative.

    • Flora July 24, 2016 at 3:46 pm #

      Yep, that’s me and my flatmate in the final picture! It was great to do the shoot with a friend as we were able to talk about how we felt afterward – and as you’ve mentioned, both of us had a totally new appreciation for our bodies.

      I’d love to take part in more Tunick installations, so I’ll be keeping tabs on where he works from here on out! And maybe one of the Naked Bike Rides is on the horizon for me too…!

  9. Paws July 22, 2016 at 1:05 pm #

    Nice write up and you’re right, we were being very British. :-)
    If you’re interested my own view of the day is here: https://creativegeekery.wordpress.com/2016/07/15/seeing-hull/
    But basically – it was awesome.

    • Flora July 24, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

      Thanks so much for sharing your article, Paws – I love seeing other people’s perspectives of the day :)

  10. John H July 23, 2016 at 12:13 pm #

    I was another participant painted blue/green that morning. I’m really not sure what prompted me to sign up for this, especially as it involved a 650 mile round trip and two nights in an hotel for my wife and I. She did not participate, other than washing me off in the shower afterward!
    Now we’ve both done beach nudism before, usually but not exclusively abroad; Spain and Greece mainly. Leaving the hotel room at just before 3.0 am and finding the lift full of others that, from the old clothes they were wearing, were bound for the same destination Queens Gardens, was it must be said rather odd.
    Getting to the Gardens was easy, less than 10 minutes walk, but finding a registration point was more challenging. Eventually I handed over the release form and was issued with my B3 marked plastic bag. A helpful assistant is reminding the ladies to be sure to cover the area under their boobs: that’s not going to be necessary unless we lie down, surely?
    Mingling with the others that were clutching a pot of paint, I fell in with a man and three young ladies. The moment of stripping off crept up on us and suddenly the announcement was made! We proceeded to cover ourselves with paint, including our hair and those nooks and crannies that don’t always see the sun, let alone sun cream. Mutual assistance was required for the painting of backs and harder to reach points, but there was, certainly in our group, no inappropriate touching, but certainly an almost professional scrutiny to see there were no bits left undone. Cloths left in carriers and plastic bags, spectacles firmly in a hard case at the bottom of a bag, the bags being left where they could be easily relocated later.
    And then we’re off to the end of the gardens to fill in on the hard surfaces around the ships wheel and fountain. Steeeeeve being already to the fore running hither and yon to get us in the right position; almost as bad as herding cats! As Flora says, the presence of an open topped bus for the snappers of the press and a drone were unexpected. Finally after turning in several directions for poses we were off again, down Alfred Gelder Street. More shuffling about, trying to get an even spread of people – that didn’t quite work, the images on the net show a greater density closer to the camera than at the far end of the street were we were.
    We were lying in the road when the Guildhall clock struck six. Only six! Seems like much later! It’s getting chilly now. Getting up some top up paint tubs were produced by the assistants and we examined each other again for peeling areas and where it had rubbed off on the tarmac. We apply touch up paint and that warms us up again. Now divided into colours we moved around the corner to the end of the Guildhall. Again a variety of directions and where we had to bend forward at the waist. By keeping our heads down we were able not to look up the more intimate areas of the person in front! But we’re now subject to the rising breeze and my body temperature at least is falling fast.
    Finally Spencer announces that the swing bridge is next, but it won’t fit all of us! Many people take the opportunity to head back to the park and dress. I say goodbye to the other four – funny I never did get their names – as they hope to get on the bridge.
    Dress, back to the hotel and into the shower. It took my wife and I an hour, literally to get it all off, and I still have paint under my nails from scooping it out of the pot, despite using a whole tub of what I was assured was very expensive make up remover! Finally an hour’s sleep before breakfast. I reflected that one of the girls was off to see her boyfriend and was due on the train at 11.30, hoping to be clean.
    That evening we go out to dinner. I took one look at one of the waitresses, and seeing tell tale blue say “nice to see you with your clothes on!” and produce my tell-tale marks. A happy conversation ensues.
    Was I glad I did it? YES. Would I do it again? YES, but hopefully without the paint, it took so long to get off. Why did I do it? Well, there’s a character in the film Calendar Girls who says “if I’m not going to get them out now, when am I going to?”. Also, I think its part of growing old disgracefully! Besides, I now know I have the balls to have done it.

    • Flora July 24, 2016 at 3:50 pm #

      Ahh this is fantastic John! Thanks so much for telling your version of the photoshoot – it’s wonderful seeing how it affected other people. I’m so glad you enjoyed it as much as I did, too!

  11. Lucy July 27, 2016 at 1:46 pm #

    I was sad to have missed this- it totally passed me by. You’re account of it was lovely- it’s so rare to feel that ‘togetherness’ with so many people but it’s so amazing when you do. I’ve just discovered your blog and I’m loving it!

    • Flora November 27, 2016 at 9:22 pm #

      That’s fantastic to hear Lucy – glad you’re enjoying it! I know, it was such an unexpectedly special experience :)

  12. Sunshine Sarah August 7, 2016 at 9:59 am #

    Hey Flora!!!! This is such a brilliant article!! I heard about this on the news and thought it was amazing!! how awesome to be part of something like this!? The photos look amazing!!! =D

    I knew I’d seen you somewhere before and now I remember, in Blogosphere magazine! You’re off to the Arctic Circle!! How bloody amazing is that?!?!!? I wish you all the best with it!!! Good Luck!!!!

    Sarah
    xoxoxo

    • Flora November 27, 2016 at 9:40 pm #

      Thanks so much, Sarah – and how fab that you spotted me in Blogosphere! It’s a great magazine & I’ve had a lot of fun editing the travel section :) thanks for the well wishes about the Arctic too! I actually headed there earlier this year so if you’re interested there are plenty of articles about the trip dotted around the site :p

  13. Louise August 18, 2016 at 9:15 pm #

    Great post – I am smiling at the memories of the day. I love that you can still see the blue footprints in Queens Gardens – it was epic, Thank you for mentioning my blog post. x

    • Flora November 27, 2016 at 9:41 pm #

      You’re very welcome, Louise! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they left the blue footprints to be a permanent reminder in Queens Gardens?!

  14. frederick hayward August 26, 2016 at 9:30 am #

    Read your article and saw you in the magazine Hull gathering sounded fantastic I wish I had been thereall good wishes with your exploring .All the places you have visited sound amazing like you.Regards Frederick

    • Flora November 27, 2016 at 9:42 pm #

      Thanks so much for reading, Frederick!

  15. Emily September 9, 2016 at 12:29 pm #

    Nice and great….I appreciate this

    • Flora November 27, 2016 at 9:43 pm #

      Cheers, Emily :)

  16. Penny Sadler October 23, 2016 at 12:58 am #

    I think you’re absolutely mad. :)

    • Flora November 27, 2016 at 9:42 pm #

      I will take that sentiment in the most positive way possible, Penny :p

  17. aliceteacake October 26, 2016 at 2:35 pm #

    I would totally strip in the name of art and I love you so much for doing this Flora! You’re right…Hull became a place of body empowerment, full on expression and a place to connect with strangers in a seriously awesome way. Good for you girl!

    • Flora November 27, 2016 at 9:44 pm #

      Aww thanks so much Alice! I feel like the Sea of Hull would’ve been right up your street too :p

  18. Dave - Man Vs Globe April 25, 2017 at 12:14 pm #

    Oh man, I was really considering getting involved with this but unfortunately wasn’t free – a few of my friends participated and loved the experience and atmosphere of the whole event.

    It’ll be great to see the images at Feren’s gallery the next time I make it over to ‘Ull.

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