Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Chris Mathiesen’s job title. He is Saratoga Springs’ commissioner of public safety.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — T-shirts, golf shirts and white shirts have always been part of the tradition at Saratoga Race Course.
Two young women have introduced a new, ultra-revealing look — no shirts.
Since the meet began in late July, the women have appeared on Frank Sullivan Place just outside the west entrance to the track and near a taxi cab waiting area, wearing green body paint on their breasts and other parts of their bodies. Short skirts or tight pants have completed their appearances.
The women have greeted people entering and leaving the race course with big smiles and waves, and have welcomed photo opportunities. The game plan celebrates Lady Luck — the green covers are basic shamrocks and small hearts, and the women hope track fans’ encounters with painted ladies will bring them good fortune with the horses.
The women are not standing on race course grounds. They are on city property, and are situated several feet away from the entrance to track land. They cannot be busted; they are not breaking any Saratoga Springs city laws.
City Attorney Vincent J. DeLeonardis said under city code, it is unlawful for any female to appear, work, entertain, act or display herself in the city clothed or costumed in such a manner “that the portion of her breast below the top of the areola is not covered with a fully opaque covering or in such a manner that her genitals, pubic area or buttocks are not covered with a fully opaque covering.”
“Our laws are silent on the issue of body paint,” DeLeonardis said in an email note, “and, in the absence of an amendment to our code specifically establishing that same is not a sufficient or acceptable covering, it would appear that it meets the definition of ‘opaque covering’ and is, thus, not prohibited.”
City code — Section 205 — defines street performers as people who engage in “any musical, theatrical, aesthetic or artistic effort or expression, in a public place, in a manner reasonably intended to attract the attention of others.”
“So long as the performance at issue does not run afoul of the enumerated prohibited acts set forth in Section 205,” DeLeonardis said, “it would be allowable.”
People leaving the track on Saturday passed members of the South Troy Dodgers baseball group; a man who supports veterans causes; a violin-and-viola duo; and a violin soloist. They were all hoping for a few dollars.
The topless women — who identified themselves only as Sara and Alice — are not asking for money. But donations are accepted. Men and women have been dropping dollars into the small silver bags the women always have in their hands. A small sign indicates the cash will help breast cancer awareness.
Sara (left) and Alice wave to patrons as they make their way to Saratoga Race Course on July 28, 2017. (Erica Miller)
“Most people do a double take,” said Sara, who would not give her age. “We’re definitely new for Saratoga.”
“It’s pretty grass roots right now,” Sara added of a group she has started, which does not yet have a name. “We’re helping people who are suffering primarily with breast cancer, but any type of cancer, pay their bills.”
“They’re stressed,” Sara added. “I just went to the food pantry yesterday and brought this lady dog food, toilet paper and laundry detergent. She had none of it.”
The women are also covered under state laws. According to New York penal law, “exposure of a person” can be charged if a person appears in public with private parts unclothed or exposed. But there is room to wear less and still be legal; the Court of Appeals ruled in 1992 that exposure of a bare female breast violates the law only when it takes place in a commercial context.
The ruling came after seven women, the “Topfree Seven,” were arrested for exposing their breasts at a picnic in a Rochester park in 1986. The court’s action was tested in 2005, when a woman bared her breasts in New York City, citing the 1992 case. The woman was detained for 12 hours and later successfully sued the city for $29,000.
Topless and painted women have been in the news before. In 2015, the “desnudas” — “naked ones” — caused a sensation in New York’s City Times Square. Women dressed in outlandish, feathered head gear, body paint and thongs posed for tips. They considered themselves walking artwork.
The women are still in place this year. City officials have ordered the nearly nude women to stay within a “designated activity zone” as they hustle for people, photos and cash rewards.
The 20th World Bodypainting Festival was held last weekend in Austria, with men and women covered head to toe in complex and colorful patterns. And women who want to go without shirts have an ally in Go Topless, a national organization that supports gender equality when it comes to buttoning down. The group will conduct its annual “Go Topless Day” on Aug. 26.
Word has been getting around Saratoga Springs about the shamrock women.
“They were downtown on Caroline Street during the Hats Off Festival as well,” said Todd Shimkus, president of Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, of the city’s party to celebrate opening weekend at the race course.
“It certainly gets talked about,” Shimkus said. “I’d certainly love for people to be talking about great racing taking place at Saratoga or the return of the Philadelphia Orchestra to SPAC, but if the public safety folks can’t do anything, there’s not a whole lot we can expect to change.”
Outside the race track last weekend, reactions to the ladies in green mostly were positive. Guys in their 20s, with sunglasses and fedoras, happily posed for photos with the women after an afternoon of beers and bets. Older men laughed about the photo op and smiled as pals held cellphone cameras. So did a woman who had just left her bachelorette party at the race course, glad to stand between the two half-naked women.
“I want to take 100 more!” said one man, glad for an unusual photo. People dashed over, gave the women “high five” hand slaps, and kept on moving.
“You’re not giving them a ticket are you?” a woman sternly asked a reporter who was writing notes on paper attached to a clipboard.
“I would say 95 percent is cool and positive and that’s awesome,” Sara said of reactions. “Then there’s the five percent that say negative things, like ‘Put a shirt on,’ or ‘I’ll buy you a shirt.'”
Not everyone was smiling last weekend.
- “What the hell was that?” said one woman, as she passed the shamrock women.
- Several senior citizens kept their eyes focused straight ahead, and did not take a peek.
- One man appeared to complain to a police officer — a police vehicle was parked near the women both Friday and Saturday. The officer held out his hands and said, “They’re legal!”
- “Oh my God,” said one boy, a bit shocked at the eyeful.
- A woman with a couple of small children was even more shocked. “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” she said, angrily, walking quickly past the women.
Sara and Alice have heard that before. “Most of the time, the kids are fine,” Sara said. “I had one mother who tried to shield her children from me. She was like, ‘That’s so inappropriate.'”
Chris Mathiesen, Saratoga Springs’ commissioner of public safety, believes the women’s appearances at the track is inappropriate. He does not like the painted women on view in a spot where families are leaving the race course.
“We’re not thrilled about this but unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about this,” Mathiesen said. “If we try to put something in the ordinance to forbid this kind of behavior, what I understand is it’s not going to hold up in the court. That’s our situation.
“It should be perfectly obvious to these women that this is not the place to be doing this,” Mathiesen also said. “Anyone should understand that.”
Mathiesen believes the courts should re-examine their rulings on public expression. And he does not think covers and colors are the same thing.
“My feeling is this is not a covering,” Mathiesen said of the body paint. “Coloring the breast is not covering the breast. But I’ve been overruled.”
Last weekend, the painted ladies did not seem bothered by negative reactions.
“Come say hello!” they said, cheerfully. “Come get your picture taken! Come get some luck!”
“Before I came out and did this, I made sure I spoke to the city attorney,” said Sara, whose uses a blonde wig on track days. “I went to the police station and told the cops, ‘This is what I’m going to do so I’m sure you’re going to get phone calls’ and they went, ‘OK, thanks for letting us know.’
“I grew up in this area so I know what it’s like up here,” Sara added. “I did it by myself [last year] to feel it out. I’m a beautiful girl and I’m happy with that. I think it’s fun … I think I look like a statue, I look like the ‘Spirit of Life’ in Congress Park.”
The “Spirit” is a statue of a winged female that has been a longtime park attraction. The woman in stone is depicted with clothing.
The real thing
The woman are not shy about wearing only paint on their tops.
“I’m an aspiring model and actress,” said dark-haired, petite Alice, 23, who said she does not live in the area. “The biggest models you’ve ever seen who make millions of dollars, their breasts are all over the Internet as well. We’re the only country that puts a no-no for women to have no shirts on.”
She also wondered why nudes are OK for statues, but when real women go public without shirts, it can be controversial.
“Why can you look at that but not the actual thing?” she asked.
Saratoga Springs buskers Lily Manzueta and Meredith Craig, on violin and viola, respectively, played a few feet away from Sara and Alice on Saturday.
“That’s the first time I’ve seen it here; we’ve been busking here for a while, three years,” Manzueta said.
The topless act does not bother the musicians.
“They’re really nice to us,” Manzueta said.
There have been annoyances for the underdressed “street performers.”
“Sometimes people say inappropriate things,” Sara said. “One guy was like, ‘Are you wearing panties under there?'” Another guy offered to help the women make their monetary goal a little quicker.
And some people have put their hands where they shouldn’t.
“I have been grabbed,” Sara said. “It’s actually the women who are worse than the men. They feel, ‘I’m a woman, not a man, so I can do it.’ No, you can’t, just because you’re a woman. The men know, they’ve been conditioned to know that. The women don’t. They’re like, ‘I’m a girl!'”
Sara and Alice say they are not worried about dealing with people who have been drinking all day at the track. And they say they will not be out in the rain, in weather that could wash away their green.
The women said they are keeping some of the money for incidentals such as coffee and gasoline. They say most of the cash is going to their cause.
Some people outside the track questioned the cause. One wondered why a larger cancer group was not involved in the operation. Another wondered how much money was actually going to cancer survivors.
“Then what’s so bad about that, if it even was the case,” Sara said. “If I was that poor and I needed money to pay my rent, is that such a crime? Would you give me more then?”
Sara said she is making the donations. “I am,” she said. “They want to donate and they’re having fun. At the end of the day, you got your dollar’s worth.”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124, [email protected] or through Facebook.