According to Wikipedia, Coney Island’s first Mermaid Parade took place in 1983, and it is now the largest art parade in the United States, attracting over 3,000 participants and hundreds of thousands of spectators.
Hours before the Parade’s start, the audience begins lining up behind police barricades along Surf Avenue. Spectators and costumed participants ride the subway to the recently renovated Stillwell Avenue stop.
Coney Island USA, founded by Dick Zigun, sponsors the parade annually on or near June 21st, the date of the Summer Solstice. From the group’s website:
"The MERMAID PARADE specifically was founded in 1983 with 3 goals: it brings mythology to life for local residents who live on streets named Mermaid and Neptune; it creates self-esteem in a district that is often disregarded as 'entertainment'; and it lets artistic New Yorkers find self-expression in public. Unlike most parades, this one has no ethnic, religious, or commercial aims. It’s a major New York holiday invented by artists! An American version of the summer-solstice celebration, it takes pride of place with West African Water Festivals and Ancient Greek and Roman street theater. It features participants dressed in hand-made costumes based on themes and categories set by us. This creates an artistic framework on which artists can improvise, resulting in the flourishing of frivolity, dedication, pride, and personal vision that has become how New York celebrates summer."
The Mermaid Parade in 1992, the first year I attended, was still a relatively small, local event; its founders still in the process of building an audience. I parked my car a few blocks from Surf Avenue and walked toward the Parachute Jump. In the adjacent empty field Parade participants were finishing preparations for their costumes and floats. What a visual feast for a photographer!
I walked around taking pictures for an hour or so, and just as I came upon the ‘Birth of Venus’ float, a light rain began to fall. The parade soon started, and viewers cheered as the marchers strolled and strutted happily along Surf Avenue.
Photographer Elaine Norman discovered the Parade in 1985 by chance while visiting the used clothing shops along Surf Avenue. “ I saw people in strange costumes and went outside to find out what they were doing. I took a few photos then, and soon started coming every year.” The Museum of the City of New York exhibited Elaine’s hand-colored black and white Mermaid Parade photographs in the mid-1990’s. You can see them on her website.
Like Elaine I thought that the Parade was fantastic. I returned in 1993 and for many years thereafter. I was fascinated by the beauty and ingenuity of the Parade’s participants, and enjoyed the strange mix of sexuality, showmanship, and topical political messaging expressed in both individual costumes and group floats.
One of my all-time favorites is the young man who marched tied into an oil-covered boat, while sipping cans of Budweiser. He was portraying Captain Joseph Hazelwood, then considered guilty of piloting the Exxon Valdez – and causing a huge oil spill – while drunk.
Eventually the Mermaid Parade became a mecca for photographers. The costumed participants were not only great subjects; they were willing subjects. No one asked the question dreaded by street photographers everywhere: “ Why did you take my picture?” Voyeurs and exhibitionists mingled happily. In a recent telephone conversation, Don Burmeister, founder and director of Brooklyn’s SAFE-T-GALLERY (2002 – 2010) told me that every NYC photographer who brought work to his Gallery had a Coney Island portfolio, with a large number of Mermaid Parade images. He knew why: “Coney Island is easy for photographers because people want to be photographed.”
Sometimes Mermaids photographed and costumed photographers marched.
I liked to watch the actual parade – especially when it was smaller and took place on the boardwalk.
But I really loved it when the parade ended and participants went down to the water to cool off. Beach goers, who had no knowledge of the Mermaid Parade, watched with curiosity or cheered playfully as costumed and painted characters passed their blankets. Children and teenagers often joined them, taking photos along the way and in the ocean.
I do not remember the first year this happened, but gradually the sound of tubas, horns and drums reached me at the shore. As the sound got louder, I turned to see members of the Hungry March Band - with their instruments - coming straight into the ocean!
I thought that this revelry was the highlight of the day. But there was more to come. Each year the newly crowned King Neptune and Queen Mermaid marched from the Parade’s official viewing stand to the ocean. In their path were red ribbons for each season, from Winter to Summer, to be cut on the way to the official warming of the water.
Surrounded by sea creatures of every type, kids and photographers, Dick Zigun stirred the waters with a large key while a special thermometer registered the rising temperature.
Over time Coney Island USA added elements of West African water festivals to the Parade’s conclusion, including ritual offering of fruit to the ocean waters.
I’ve enjoyed photographing the Mermaid Parade for over 20 years. I’ve traded photos for beads with a generous King Neptune, been blessed by Reverend Billy and always ended my day with a swim. My favorite experience occurred in 1998 at the water’s edge while I was photographing a tall red-wigged mermaid and her friends. A lifeguard holding a young girl joined us saying to the mermaid “My daughter wants to kiss you. Is that OK?”
I love the feeling of openness and connection between the marchers, the parade viewers and the beach goers. It makes me proud to live in such a diverse and creative city.
This year's Mermaid Parade is this Saturday, June 22nd. Find more information about the event on Coney Island USA's website.