Alicia Amiri, the Seattle singer who performs under her own name—and most recently before that, who fronted the gothic darkwave spectacular Nightmare Fortress—would be proud to show you her nipples.
Her nipples were supposed to be out on First Avenue day and night, night and day, in a mural outside the strip club Deja Vu Showgirls Seattle. She is the model for the octopus lady you see above. The octopus lady wearing a bra.
Because her nipples were deemed indecent.
"I’ve worked at the Can Can for a really long time," Amiri told me yesterday, referring to the burlesque club across the street from Deja Vu where she bartends and waits tables, and where the stupidly, harshly, and dangerously restrictive Washington state laws that apply to other strip clubs don't apply, because the dancers wear teeny-tiny coverings on certain parts of their bodies.
"The girls all wear pasties," she continued. "Just by the fact that they’re wearing this tiny little glittery thing on their nipples means people can drink, means they can get in people’s laps—just because their nipple is colored a different color than it is naturally. Somehow that is the insane loophole that makes it more decent. What those dancers do every day to help normalize bodies is super cool. I thought it was cool taking off my shirt [to model for the mural] in solidarity with the club right across the street. I’m not too surprised about this, it’s just really painfully boring and disappointing."
Actually, she said, "I found it pretty offensive" that her body was censored lest it do harm to innocent people.
Crystal Barbre is the artist who painted the mural. She originally created this drawing for it.
There's no law against nudity in public art in Seattle, yet there's very little of it.
And if you want to talk about nudity and mermaids, just take a look at what's happened to the Starbucks logo since its breasty introduction in 1971.
Barbre wanted to create a scene that would "normalize" nude female bodies by setting nudes smack in the middle of downtown, where tourists pass by to go to Seattle Art Museum or Pike Place Market. She was excited when Deja Vu asked her to do the piece, because it's right on the wall facing the fish-throwing guys at Pike Place.
Deja Vu accepted her drawing. She got to work. But then word came from Deja Vu's lawyers that the rules for strip clubs are different than the rules for public art. And that they have to be extra careful, given the restrictive climate Washington already presents to strip-club owners.
The nipples would have to be covered.
"We risked it at first and then in retrospect we went back and read through the ordinance, and we could get shut down," said Sean Dunlap of Deja Vu. "So that was when we talked to her about covering everything up, because the ordinance is so vague about what can and cannot be shown."
Barbre briefly consulted a lawyer who advised her not to press the issue and rather to simply comply.
"A very important part of doing that mural for me was to show women's naked bodies in a strong, powerful way," Barbre told me. "I had so many women stop to talk to me while I was painting to say seeing the naked female body (all the models are strong women artists who live in Seattle) represented in that way made an impact on them and made them appreciate the beauty of their own bodies. So I was truly heartbroken to have to paint over it. I was literally crying painting over it, and had more then a few kind passersby stop to make sure some girl on a ladder, painting a bra on some octopus lady and sobbing, was okay."
Barbre wasn't crying for her career or anything like that. And she wasn't crying because she was upset with Deja Vu. In fact, she said, Dunlap "is a really great human being." They are friends, and she used to work for Dunlap at Deja Vu, when she worked in the porn store there before she became established enough to survive on art commissions.
"It was so much fun," she said. "There was never a dull moment."
Working in porn stores made her see up close the ways that sex workers are debased and demoralized not by what they do, but by society's attitudes—and laws—about what they do. They're shamed, criminalized, isolated, and discouraged, sometimes violently, from advocating for themselves to get the basic working conditions they need.
"Especially women's safety suffers," Barbre told me she observed.
Deja Vu and Barbre's lawyer certainly seem to believe that free-flying nipples would bring punishment.
But what does the law say?
I read the state ordinance to find the special restrictions governing the premises of "adult entertainment establishments":
No adult entertainment shall be visible outside of the adult entertainment establishment, nor any photograph, drawing, sketch or other pictorial or graphic representation which includes lewd matter as defined in chapter 7.48A RCW or display of sexually explicit material in violation of RCW 9.68.130.
I'm not sure, but to me, the logic flows like this:
1. "Lewd matter" or "sexually explicit material" is forbidden.
2. "Lewd matter" has to "appeal to the prurient interest" AND "lewd exhibition of the genitals or genital area" AND "lack serious artistic value."
3. Therefore, Barbre's mural cannot be considered "lewd matter." (Right?)
4. "Sexually explicit matter" has to "emphasiz[e] the depiction of adult human genitals: PROVIDED HOWEVER, That works of art or of anthropological significance shall not be deemed to be within the foregoing definition.
5. So...not guilty.
What am I missing? Can we get the bras removed? It is one irony-bridge too far to cover nipples on a strip club governed by moral codes that leave actual women in danger in a "progressive" city.
I'd rather the laws be changed than the art. But maybe a few nipples can do some of the convincing first, out on the street. I'll be first in line to bring my toddler and two teenagers past the nipples. I'll be sure our family therapist is on speed-dial to handle the damage to their psyches.
As for Barbre, she is working on other murals around the city, including one in West Seattle, and now she's on a crusade.
"Now," she told me, "I'm going to paint all the nipples all over the place all of the time."
Look out for them.