WRITTEN BY RIK SAULT, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
If you’ve been anywhere near Times Square in recent years, you are surely familiar with the legion of entrepreneurial costumed characters (Elmo, Iron Man, Minnie Mouse, etc.) who graciously offer visitors a hug and a photo opportunity for a price, at times unbeknownst to tourists until after the photo is snapped. Topless painted ladies (“desnudas”) have now closed in on Elmo’s action, and the scantily clad ladies are berating tourists for not handing over enough money.
NYC’s Mayor de Blasio and other City officials vowed to crack down on what has been described as aggressive and predatory panhandling. As Scout Willis showed us, public toplessness is legal in NYC (NOTE: the only States that wholly Law ban toplessness are IN, TN, and UT), but aggressive panhandling is not.
De Blasio emphasizes that both the desnudas and the “furry creatures” of Times Square are engaged in business, rather than creative artistic expression. He told the New York Timesthat he believes this “opens the door” to regulate them the way the City “would any other business. And we will do so, while still respecting constitutional rights.”
A City Councilman whose district includes Times Square said that Times Square can be quirky and chaotic but it can’t be unsafe and creepy. Indeed, this may be a difficult line to draw. The Councilman has been working on a bill that would place time, place and manner restrictions on the topless and the costumed characters, as the City has done with street vendors in crowded areas like Central Park.
Does the mere fact that the desnudas earn money make them a street vendor, and doesn’t that undercut the artistic value of their brand of entertainment? As this story found its way through the NYC newspapers, I was not too surprised when the Daily News published an “exclusive” story, with gratuitous photos, describing “shady bosses” who handle the desnudas affairs and take a 30-40% share of their earnings. According to the National Employment Law Project, these “managers” lend support to the notion that the desnudas are doing business, and they could perhaps be subject to minimum wage laws. Maybe after NY’s fast food workers get their $15 hourly wage, the topless painted ladies could make a similar pitch?
Notwithstanding the strong opposition to desnudas running rampant, de Blasio and City officials must be careful in crafting a solution. Although the business-over-art argument may look good in the papers, famed civil rights lawyer Ron Kubyd doesn’t buy it. “You take two bare breasts, add the request for money which is legal, and you end up with legal behavior,” he told DNAinfo. “Two boobs, one beg, equals lawful.” So, until the City unveils its plan, desnudas and the costumed characters are free to bomb your photos and pocket your money.