Understanding Public and Artistic Nudity Laws in New York

| December 18, 2015 | 0 Comments

New York’s Public Nudity Law and Why Artistic Nudity Is Legal

While some U.S. states have strict laws against public nudity, New York State is a little different.

New York Penal Code 245.01 “Exposure of a person” states:

“A person is guilty of exposure if he appears in a public place in such a manner that the private or intimate parts of his body are unclothed or exposed. For purposes of this section, the private or intimate parts of a female person shall include that portion of the breast which is below the top of the areola. This section shall not apply to the breastfeeding of infants or to any person entertaining or performing in a play, exhibition, show or entertainment.

Exposure of a person is a violation.

Nothing in this section shall prevent the adoption by a city, town or village of a local law prohibiting exposure of a person as herein defined in a public place, at any time, whether or not such person is entertaining or performing in a play, exhibition, show or entertainment.”

There’s much to say about public exposure of female breasts, but first we’ll focus on this important exception in the law:
“This section shall not apply…to any person entertaining or performing in a play, exhibition, show or entertainment.”

This means that public nudity is legal when it takes some form of artistic expression. An example would be the public nude body painting events YNA does in NYC with Andy Golub.

As the law notes, NY cities and towns can pass their own local ordinances that completely prohibit public nudity without this exception for art.

We can’t name any specific cities or towns in New York that have such an ordinance, but it is always recommended to check your local laws before you get naked in public!

New York City currently follows state penal code 245.01 and has not passed its own ordinance against public nudity.

Since we at Young Naturists America are based in NYC, we have quite a bit of first-hand experience with public nudity and the laws here. The following are some stories and examples of how public nudity has been tolerated and not tolerated in “The Naked City.”

felicity nypd officers nyc bodypainting day 2015 yna

Felicity with 2 NYPD officers at NYC Bodypainting Day 2015

False Arrests For Artistic Nudity in NYC

Before you decide to go out and put on a real naked cowboy performance in Times Square, you’ll need to be prepared for arrest and other negative repercussions.

While a nude art performance may be legal, this is still America where news networks will censor the most expensive fine art in the world because it features the naked human form.

Public nudity is controversial, and you have to be prepared for adverse reactions, especially from the police. Just because what you’re doing is arguably legal, and arguably art, it doesn’t mean you won’t get arrested even in a creative, artsy place like NYC. Moreover, the local police often don’t even know that artistic nudity is legal.

Two famous cases of artists getting falsely arrested for public nudity are Spencer Tunick and Andy Golub.

1. Spencer Tunick is a renowned photographer who stages large-scale nude photo shoots with up to hundreds of people. During the 1990’s, he began staging these types of naked photo shoots in the public streets of NYC. But as far as the city was concerned, he wasn’t an artist – he was a criminal. He was arrested 5 times between 1992 and 2000.

After the 5th arrest, Tunick filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city. By 2000, all the arrest charges against him were dropped, and the Federal District Court ruled in his favor. They agreed that to shut down his work was a violation of his First Amendment rights. The city ended up appealing the decision all the way to the Supreme Court, but Tunick won on every appeal.

2. Andy Golub is a New York-based artist and founder of NYC Bodypainting Day. He is most known for his public body painting in NYC where he paints anywhere from 1 to 25 or more naked people. NYPD and city officials weren’t always so tolerant of his work, though.

Andy began doing his public body painting sessions in 2007 without full nudity. In 2011, he set out to paint fully nude models in public, which resulted in the arrest of him and his model. The charges were later dismissed, and Andy was allowed to paint fully nude models but with the condition that models keep their bottoms on until after sunset. (In 2012, one of Andy’s models, Zoe West, sued the city for her false arrest and was awarded $15,000.)

But the New York law is very clear, and it doesn’t restrict nudity to a certain time of day. Andy’s work with nude models was unquestionably legal. So in 2013, Andy pushed NYC officials to acknowledge this and remove the restriction. They conceded.

andy golub nypd police nyc public nude body painting new york nudity laws yna

Andy shows 2 NYPD officers that his public nude body painting is sanctioned by the city.

Both Spencer Tunick and Andy Golub were represented by civil rights and criminal defense lawyer Ron Kuby, who is known as “New York’s leading legal authority on bare breasts and public non-sexual nudity.”

Kuby has said that the only kind of nudity prohibited in New York is what he calls “nihilistic nudity” — a person wakes up, decides not to put on clothes and walks out the door.

So we do not recommend just taking a naked stroll outside and calling it “art” as a way to legalize the act. Not only are you risking arrest and criminal charges, you also could end up giving your local municipality a reason to propose a new public nudity ordinance (which happens all the time). There is a difference between taking advantage of a law and abusing it. The consequences of the latter may affect us all, so it’s important to carefully consider your actions and have a plan in case the locals overreact.

As a third example of a false arrest, I (Felicity) was arrested in 2011 along with two men during a naked art performance on Wall Street by Zefrey Throwell. I was topfree, while the men were naked and all three were charged with indecent exposure. All the charges against us were dismissed.

Felicity was falsely arrested for being topfree on Wall Street during the naked art performance Ocularpation

Felicity was falsely arrested for being topfree on Wall Street during the naked art performance Ocularpation.

There are plenty of instances where nude artistic expression did not result in arrest or any incidents. Now in 2015, it seems as though NYC has become more accepting of public nude art performances (and hopefully the same can be said for other cities and towns of New York).

It’s worth noting that in August 2014, San Francisco activist George Davis was permitted to make a political speech in Times Square while completely naked. He inquired with city officials ahead of time about doing this speech, and they granted permission. You can see a video and read more about it on our website.

Though public nudity is not always tolerated or welcomed even when it’s legal, NYC is still a unique place that allows for more artistic expression than other cities would.

No matter where you decide to get naked in New York, always research local laws beforehand and be prepared for the possibility of arrest, a fine or perhaps more serious consequences. Also consider that if you are planning a nude public demonstration or performance, the nudity factor alone may be a good reason to notify local law enforcement or city officials to ensure safety and cooperation.

This article is about full nudity in New York, but there is much more to say about laws and legal issues regarding the exposure a particular body part: Female breasts. This will be addressed in its own article coming soon!

Please note that this article is for informational purposes and not intended to serve as legal advice.

Young Naturists & Nudists America

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About the Author ()

Author of Felicity's Blog. Co-founder of Young Naturists America. 3rd-generation nudie. Avid reader. Feminist. 70% vegan, 30% vegetarian. When I'm not busy eating, I'm writing about naturism, censorship, topfree equality, body image and other fun topics. I like feedback, so plz leave a comment when you've got something to say!