In the early 90s, a handful of people decided to hop on bikes and streak the Fremont Solstice Parade. They surely didn’t know at the time that they would inspire the world.
Their act of celebratory, bicycle-powered mischief set the stage for thousands of people to follow their lead, painting their bodies (thus why I put “naked” in quotes) in backyards across town or at the annual organized painting party in Ballard before biking to the start line ahead of the official Fremont Solstice Parade (see the Solstice Cyclists website for a basic schedule). The tradition’s history and creative power was captured in the 2013 documentary Beyond Naked (rent it online here) and was very likely an inspiration for the World Naked Bike Ride tradition that now happens in cities across the globe.
But now the Fremont Arts Council (“FAC”) is trying to bring the the annual uninvited creative outburst of cycling into the fold as an official part of the parade. The organization is asking participants to register online. Though registration is optional this year, the FAC says spaces will be “limited” next year.
“Last year we had upwards of 1,500 riders,” said Harper, the newly-elected President of the FAC. “It’s time to embrace the cyclists as part of the parade.”
The big question, of course, is whether the FAC actually has any control over the bike ride. The ride is inherently autonomous and decentralized. It’s an idea, not a produced event. Though some riders volunteer their time to try to get more organized so the ever-growing ride runs more smoothly, these volunteers are not “in charge” of the ride. They just help the ride be a positive and safe part of the day’s festivities.
“We also work towards making the ride itself work better, but our only ‘authority’ over the riders is in hosting the big paint party and then leading by example,” longtime volunteer Ethan Bradford wrote in an email. “We will, for example, have around eight specially painted “ride guides”, who make sure the riders don’t continue ahead of where the route is cleared, don’t turn back into the parade, and don’t spread into both sides of the street.”
The FAC approached the crew of volunteers who organize the annual painting party and ride guides to try to get them to sign a Memorandum of Understanding outlining the bike ride’s role in the official parade, but the volunteers did not sign it since they do not feel like they can represent the whole group. So in response, the FAC is sort of stepping over them and appealing directly to all the participants.
The FAC is trying to put on a very low-budget parade (they have about $27K for this year) with a huge community impact, and they are sort of putting their organization’s liability on the line for an element they can’t control.
“We’re an organization, and we’re allowing this to happen in our parade,” said Harper. Everyone in the official ensemble parade is registered, but the people biking are not.
Registrations will likely be among the stickiest points. I asked her whether people are going to want their names in a database attached to something at least colloquially referred to as the “naked bike ride.” Would a registration process inherently limit participation?
“Well, we’re gonna find out, aren’t we?” she said. She also said the FAC wouldn’t give the database to anyone. Registration will not be required this year, but they are testing the waters for such a system next year. People who register could be tracked by wearing a wrist band (her answer when I asked people’s likely lack of pockets to hold an ID card), though those details are very much still in the air.
“We’re still flexible on how this is going to happen this year,” she said.
Of course, it’s not clear what you can do if a couple hundred painted people on bikes show up without wristbands. If you make it too hard to enter officially, people will simply revert to the unofficial method.
Another sticking point is curation of the riders. Harper said they hope to limit riders in future years to just the “most creative.”
“There is some curation that comes with art,” she said.
But that puts FAC in the tricky spot of determining what art is allowed and what isn’t. They also don’t want anyone who is not painted, though where do you draw the line? Is someone half-painted allowed? One third? Which body parts need to be painted? Who judges this? When you have 1,500+ people trying to participate, this becomes a very difficult task. The experience is supposed to be about self-expression without judgment.
Past attempts to reign in the Solstice bike ride didn’t go so well. Let’s rewind to put this new development into context. As the bicycle streaking tradition grew each year throughout the 90s, so did the debate within the FAC and the City of Seattle about whether to try to stop the crowd-pleasing parade crashers. Some years even saw arrests.
But the public was clearly on the side of the growing number of people painting their bodies each year and biking ahead of the official parade, and the debate came to a head in 2001 when, with the helpful support of Councilmember Nick Licata, the city and the Fremont Arts Council decided not to try to stop them. The unstoppable force of creative people on bikes won, and its popularity has flourished ever since growing to the 1,000 – 1,500 people or so in recent years (there seems to be no official count, so this is a rough estimate).
People ride in the parade for countless reasons. In fact, there are probably as many different reasons as there are participants. Biking in the daylight in front of so many spectators while in various states of undress and paint is an inherently vulnerable and powerful experience (the motto is “bare as you dare,” but there are no rules saying you must be naked).
Your own body is the ultimate canvass, and you see people express themselves in so many ways. I’ve seen someone with a painted-on tux propose to his fiancée in the middle of the parade. I’ve met people who see the ride as a way to reclaim confidence and love for their bodies. I’ve met people who simply think it’s fun as hell to do something so wild and out-of-the-ordinary.
The Fremont Solstice bike ride is an essential part of the Seattle experience, whether you watch it, participate or simply feel good about your city knowing it happens. It’s part of what makes our city unique. While other cities have adopted the World Naked Bike Ride, nothing is quite like the Fremont Solstice ride.
The official Fremont Solstice Parade is totally awesome and entirely human-powered itself. It’s also entirely non-commercial. No logos or advertising are allowed in the parade, which is about expression and art (so, by the way, that means no Pronto bikes due to the Alaska Air ads on the fenders).
Yet it costs a lot of money for the largely-volunteer Fremont Arts Council to host this parade, which is a constant struggle in part due to that non-commercial mission. So if anyone has an idea for how to get some more cash from the bike ride spectacle, now could be a good time to hear it.
If money is a big sticking point, there must be a more positive way forward that neither limits participation and creativity while also helping the FAC continue hosting successful and inspiring parades.
Here’s the text of the press release:
CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE – The gears are oiled and the tires are inflated, but there are still a couple things that cyclists need to do to ride in the Fremont Arts Council’s 28th Annual Fremont Solstice Parade on June 18. Riders are asked to RSVP this year at fremontartscouncil.org\painted-cyclists to reserve their spot in the parade. Reserved cyclists will have advance opportunity for next year’s registration, when limits on the number of cyclists will be implemented.
Asking painted cyclists to register, and limiting the number of riders is an effort to improve the quality of the body art and enable people to see it better. The hope is that the event will be safer and that those who do ride represent the most creative body painting.
The parade is entirely run by volunteers who consider themselves stewards of an authentic community icon – the Fremont Solstice Parade and Celebration. They appreciate your help sustaining Seattle’s best party. Donations may be made at fremontartscouncil.org/donate.
The Fremont Solstice Parade will be on Saturday, June 18, 3 p.m., beginning at North 36th Street and 2nd Avenue Northwest, traveling east along the north shore of the Ship Canal into Gasworks Park. The event ends with the Solstice Celebration in the park, including HONK! Fest West, a gathering of local and national street bands, food trucks, beer garden, and more art!
The Fremont Arts Council (FAC) believes that art helps build stronger communities and creates a sense of place. Fremont is a state of mind, not a zip code. The FAC produces the Fremont Solstice Parade and Celebration, creates and cares for public art like the Fremont Troll, and engages everyone year-round in workshops and events including May Day, Luminata, Troll-o-ween, and Winter Feast.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.