The day I got naked for Spencer Tunick

As we stripped off in the small hours of Saturday morning, a sea of 3,200 naked strangers in Hull, one question struck me: what if I’m dyed Avatar blue forever?

Standing naked in the centre of Hull in the small hours of the morning is not something I ever expected to be doing. But that’s where I found myself on Saturday, wearing nothing but my own skin, painted blue, alongside 3,200 other like-minded people, shivering slightly in the dawn breeze.

As soon as I heard about Spencer Tunick’s vision for his latest artwork, Sea of Hull, back in March, I registered to take part. I’m not even from Hull – I’m a recent graduate living in the countryside outside York – but I couldn’t pass up the experience of posing naked for a world famous photographer.

Thousands walk Hull streets naked for Spencer Tunick

For the uninitiated, Tunick creates “living art” all over the world by directing crowds of naked people through urban and natural environments – then photographing them. Ahead of its year as UK city of culture, Tunick wanted to use the curves and flowing nature of the human form to imitate a flooding of Hull’s city streets. The resulting photos will go on show at Ferens Art Gallery in 2017.

The idea of seeing myself nude on the wall of a gallery appealed on a primal level. I’ve never felt ashamed of my body, and see nothing wrong with stripping off in the name of art. The body should be celebrated, not shamed.

So packing our bags with old clothes, towels and what felt like a lifetime’s supply of baby wipes as if we were off to Glastonbury, my (very reluctant) boyfriend and I set off for Hull just after midnight. Each car we passed on the almost-empty M62, every bleary person we bumped into at Goole services, held a question for us: were we going to be seeing them naked later?

Arriving at Queen’s Gardens under cover of darkness at 3am, we signed in and went to pick up our tubs of oily blue body paint. Chatting to other participants, I fluctuated between extreme nervousness and an almost giddy enthusiasm – although I soon realised I wasn’t alone in that. What struck me was the variety of people queueing up. Although I felt young at 22, I never felt singled out. The reasons people gave for being there varied too: some thought it would be a laugh, others were art enthusiasts, and one man told me he was acting from a subconscious desire for exhibitionism. Not so subconscious then.

Spencer Tunick with naked volunteers in Hull.
Directing the tide … Spencer Tunick with naked volunteers in Hull. Photograph: Jon Super/AFP/Getty Images

The longer we waited to undress, the further my brain ventured into panicked overdrive. I was silently bombarding myself with questions: “Did I remember to shave my armpits?”, “Will people notice the freckle on my bum?” and the big one: “What if I’m dyed Avatar blue forever?” As it happens, my fears were totally unfounded; it was the best and most surreal morning of my life.

“You may now start painting your bodies. Smear it on like suncream. Get into every crack and crevice.” Tunick’s booming voice, amplified by the huge speaker system he’d set up, sounded apocalyptic at first, and unleashed a ripple of nervous titters the crowd. Perfect strangers were asking each other if they’d missed a spot on their backsides, and filling in parts they’d missed – the camaraderie was like nothing else.

Slowly, I took my clothes off and let them drop to the grass. I was now standing absolutely naked in a park, making conversation with two men I’d met minutes beforehand. I dipped my hands into the paint pot and started rubbing it over my breasts. It was unexpectedly slimy, gliding over my skin smoothly, like a second skin. I was surprised too by how quickly you embrace the nudity and shed any embarrassment. Who ever said the British were prudes?

Flood of humanity … on Hull’s
Flood of humanity … in Hull Photograph: Jon Super/AFP/Getty Images

An early morning cyclist almost fell off his bike as he caught sight of us and Tunick took to the speaker system once more to scold some voyeuristic types lurking around the park’s edges. But as we reached our first photo location, the Rose Garden, the seriousness of the event sunk in and the laughter died out. We were making something that could potentially live on in Hull’s memory for years. We were putting our stamp on the art world.

As we took his direction, Tunick transformed a disorganised crowd of civilians into beautiful art objects. We were asked to look forward and upwards, no smiling or laughing please, to make his photograph as serene as possible. We became a sea of silent, blue monoliths, facing an almost invisible lens. We became water flowing through a city previously flooded by it. And although we moved as one, each of us felt anything but anonymous – a powerful combination in the current climate.

Lying on the pavement at the final location, a street in the city centre, was the closest I’ve ever been to an absolute stranger’s body, yet the experience wasn’t sexual in the slightest. Instead, I felt moved to be involved in this one-off homage to Hull’s maritime history. I’d urge anyone to strip off for Tunick if they ever get the chance. Even if my boyfriend and I are still picking blue paint out of each other’s ears two days, and multiple showers, later.

Home and washed. The most surreal but brilliant experience of my life #seaofhull #spencertunick #nudeart

— Hannah Tomes (@_hannah_tomes) July 9, 2016
Hannah Tomes

The GuardianTramp

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