Fremont Arts Council tries to officialize, register iconic Solstice ‘naked’ bike riders

Photo by John Cornicello (used with permission)

2013 photo by John Cornicello (used with permission)

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 parade@fremontartscouncil.org.

 

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24 Responses to Fremont Arts Council tries to officialize, register iconic Solstice ‘naked’ bike riders

  1. Danica Michaels says:

    Trying to get riders to register for the ride is disturbing. I haven’t gotten to ride before (I always work weekends), but I would definitely be unable to participate if I were required to register, out of fear that my current or future employer might find out. I suspect this would impact women more significantly than men, both because male nudity is less sexualized and because women still work in higher numbers in occupations were they are caregivers for children, the elderly, and patients, or are considered representative of or “the face of” the company (front-line receptionists and salespeople), and therefore their behavior outside of working hours is more closely scrutinized (“How was your weekend?” is ALWAYS a loaded question).

    Add on top of that their plan to limit riders and start gatekeeping by judging what is art, and they will have completely destroyed the organic and subversive nature of the ride. Community and art do not happen from the top down, and an environment in which only those determined to be the best are allowed to participate suffocates creativity and innovation. As an artist myself, I guarantee you – we ALL sucked at one point. The thing that keeps most beginning artists motivated is the social and emotional reward of participation in a community where all effort is a delight and more experienced artists are on hand to help you learn (like the painting parties), where art is a discovery, not an accomplishment. Wanting to foster an artistic society while only allowing the best is like saying you want a forest without saplings. For art to be a social experience, everyone must be able to participate, regardless of ability.

    I would also be concerned about the implementation of rules about how much of the body must be painted. This is one of the very, very few situations I can think of in American culture that challenges the automatic sexualization of the nude body, and that is something we sorely need more of. I could easily see riders being required to cover the entire body or to paint culturally sexualized areas of the body opaquely to the point that there is visually no nudity on display at all in order to make the parade “family friendly,” instead of allowing the ride to challenge the reasons why nudity is “offensive” and “inapproriate” in the first place.

    As for raising money, yes, parades can be expensive, but social rides are not. I’m unclear why they want cyclists to pay to ride ahead of the parade. Someone painting their body and riding down the street does not cost anything (except paint and calories). Are they asking the cyclists to subsidize the parade? If it’s about organizing the riders during the parade, how about simply recruiting more volunteers? If there is really a legitimate need for cyclists to pay their way (and not having gotten to go to the ride yet, I’m not sure how this works, but) perhaps it could be done through more organized paint parties? The FAC could raise money by providing and charging a bit more for the paint and brushes, stations where you could pay to have your body painted by skilled artists, and pre-ride food and drinks. All of this would raise money without registration or gatekeeping. Another possibility could be social rides organized in the months leading up to the parade where people *do* register and pay; on paper their registration is only going to sponsor the FAC or Fremont Parade, with no connection to the naked bike ride or proof that they intend to participate. With 1,500 riders, it sounds like the problem is less about money than it is about organizing people to step up.

    • Law Abider says:

      Your first paragraph brings up a good point. Our society, unfortunately, shuns and shames nudity. Considering all the website leaks you hear about these days, a small time registry such as this would be a prime target for those looking to expose or even blackmail people. Might sound a little paranoid, but it’s a reality.

      And although Fremont has definitely changed, I believe there’s still a little rebelliousness in that quaint neighborhood. Some new big wig coming in and trying to squash the most rebellious part of a beloved parade is not going to go over well. The naked bike ride will happen with or without the support of the FAC.

    • OneCyclist says:

      >> … more organized paint parties?

      The official http://www.SolsticeCyclist.org painting party is well organized/executed. Some features in past included a glitter booth, a photo booth, spray-painting booth, honey buckets, DJ/PA system, paint cups brushes, and 300-feet of bike racks. See you there!

      >> Are they asking the cyclists to subsidize the parade?

      The Solstice Cyclists already donate, significantly, and have for several years.

      Of the FAC’s $27K budget, down 66% from $80K in 2015, a $4,700 chunk was donated by the Solstice Cyclists. That’s 17% of their budget. Cyclists gave $4,000 in 2014, $4,195 in 2013, and even squeezed out a $200 gift way back in 2010. That’s public record.

      The 1,000* generous and daring Solstice Cyclists donated $4.70 per person, after expenses. If the 100,000 people attending donated 20% as much, less than $1 each, the FAC’s Big Green Hat would have $94,000.

      * 4 Counts from video of painting party exodus were all over 1,000 riders.

  2. Aaron says:

    Well considering that the registration page is not https, you’re already giving up your privacy so there’s that.

  3. Andrew Squirrel says:

    “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).”

    So if you have a bike with gaudy brand logos on oversized frame tubing you are encouraged not to ride?

  4. jz says:

    Easy: Start a Kickstarter, Indiegogo or GoFundMe page for the event. Spread the world through the festival network. People will be happy to contribute if it’s not part of some unnecessary, compulsory “registration” process to track riders.

  5. AW says:

    My guess is that the FAC is seeing the riders essentially taking over the parade and want to get control back. Plus they may see the riders as a cash cow. Sadly this looks like it will be the last year of the ride being what it once was; a victim of its own success.

  6. Josh says:

    Registration of any sort seems like the quickest way to kill the ride while pretending to support it.

    Yes, there are real costs involved, closing the route, directing traffic around it, additional cleanup costs, etc. But there has to be a way to cover those costs without taking names or attempting to regulate which riders are sufficiently artistic.

    Make the wristbands anonymous. Drop any attempt at prior restraint on art. Sell wristbands for cash at Fremont-area shops before the ride, and on-site the morning of the ride, using the wristbands as admission to the staging area at the start.

    Even then, don’t expect everyone to get a wristband.

    Bicycles are inherently mobile, riders who don’t want to pay will simply ride onto the route somewhere after the official start. If the goal is really to provide the financial support needed to maintain a safe ride, that’s fine. If the fee is reasonable, most riders who can afford body paint won’t object to an extra $10 to support the ride.

    The only valid objection would be from those whose true desire is to regulate the content of the ride — that’s the only part of the scheme that requires prior registration and approval.

  7. Raven says:

    The human body IS art.

  8. mijahi says:

    No doubt the “naked bicyclists” are a huge draw for the parade, but over the last 10 or so years the ride has diminished in quality in my opinion. Way too many yahoos just showing up naked having put very little effort into their body art. They are just there for the thrill and unique opportunity to ride naked in front of thousands of people. Having put countless hours into creating art for the Solstice Parade, I truly appreciate the artistic expression in the parade. No sorry, Raven, in the context of the huge amount of effort that goes into the art of the parade, flabby, unpainted bodies, don’t count as art. I am glad to see the FAC bring some order and heighten the standards for the *painted* bicyclists.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      This isn’t the first comment I’ve seen on this topic denigrating “flabby” bodies as a reason to regulate who gets to enter. I would normally moderate such a comment, but I’ve seen it enough that I think we need to deal with it.

      All bodies are beautiful, and this kind of judgment is exactly my fear about why regulating whose expression “counts” in this ride risks destroying the open self-expression aspect that seems so vital to the Solstice ride.

      • Nettle says:

        Exactly.

        I find this parade is the only time I get to see all types of bodies out in the open in celebration. Keep it this way! That “flabby” bodied “yahoo” IS self-expressing themselves!

      • mijahi says:

        I apologize, I was not intending to be denigrating. Poor choice of word. Certainly all body types welcomed/encouraged – just paint em up!

      • Danica Michaels says:

        Thank you, Tom! Was going to say the same thing. The body painting might be fun, but it’s not the primary reason why people are drawn to participate. It’s about challenging a dominant ideology that polices bodies – especially “unattractive” ones. Art can be pretty to look at, but the paint is the easy part. It’s showing up vulnerable and defying taboos that’s the hard part. In many ways, those displaying their bare skin are braver and more subversive than those who paint themselves – as Mijahi’s knee-jerk reaction to them shows. The painted bodies do not challenge Mijahi’s paradigm, but the naked ones do.

    • Josh says:

      Someone choosing only a small, symbolic painting isn’t art, but someone doing yet another painted-all-over superhero is?

      Who gets to decide how many square inches of paint it takes to become “art”?

      No minimalists need apply?

      Does intricate knotwork not count unless you put a solid base coat under it to cover more skin? (What if that solid base coat is “flesh” toned?)

      • William says:

        More to the point, once whoever it is has decided, how are they going to stop those riders who don’t meet the criteria

  9. Marge E. says:

    I can’t share your concerns about privacy. photos are all over the web after the event.

    • Andres Salomon says:

      Which is why many participants wear masks or wigs. That’s a hugely different situation from registering with your name and credit card.

  10. JW says:

    I keep saying I’ll ride in this parade but have chickened out every year. The possibility that I might have to have my name on the list in the future might be the push I need to actually do it.

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  12. Karl says:

    ““We’re an organization, and we’re allowing this to happen in our parade,” said Harper. ”

    No, no you’re not. It isn’t happening “in our parade” it’s happening before it.

    Only a fool or an authoritarian would expect people who take part in a purposefully unorganized, naked bike ride to register for it.

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