Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Blue Boxes are disappearing but the law requiring their use is still on the books.

27 Blue Boxes are painted on sidewalks in Downtown Orlando. These boxes are for panhandlers and buskers. Busking is possible only during day light hours. Although set up for panhandlers, police often insist street performers must use the blue boxes. Performing outside the boxes can result in 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. These Boxes represent the only places downtown where theoretically there is freedom of speech. They are Orlando's First Amendment Zones.

On February 29th Mandi Ilene Schiff offered to do a body painting in Blue Box number 6. On the map, the box is located near the Bob Carr Theater on West Livingston Street. Because of construction this street can only be approached from the West off of Parramore Avenue. Mandi arrived before me and was waiting in front of the UCF Center of Emerging Media. Her model, Yvonne Clar, hadn't arrived yet. I began searching across the street for the blue box. The problem was that half of the street and sidewalk was ripped up and now fenced off due to construction.

A guard from UCF came out and asked if he could help us navigate the construction to get to downtown Orlando. My experience with people who say, "Can I help you?" is that they will be an obstruction to my completing a sketch. Though he went back inside the UCF lobby, I knew we were on his radar. Our search for the blue box was out of the ordinary. Mandi and I decided to settle in front of a large blue banner that was the logo for the construction company that was digging up this prime real estate. Mandi's idea was to camouflage the model, so she disappeared against the Blue sign. As she unloaded her paints and brushes, the guard came out and shouted "You can't be setting up over there!" I thought it odd that he didn't cross the street to speak to us. He was like a dog who barked at the edge of its property. I shouted out, "Why is that?" He shouted back that he had to protect the high school kids. That is odd, I thought, UCF is a college, there are no minors. I contacted a UCF instructor I know, just to verify that this guard has no idea of the age of the students he sees everyday.

Since I was getting over a cold, I decided to walk across the street so I didn't have to shout. I told him that I was documenting the 27 blue boxes and explained what they are for. I showed him the location of blue box number 6 on the city map figuring he might help me in locating it. "I don't know anything about no blue boxes, all I know is that you can't set up over there. I have to keep these kids safe. There are pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers who are always hanging around this area." Now, If I was a prostitute I wouldn't work this abandoned stretch of road, I thought. Did he think Mandi was a prostitute? He would definitely have a heart attack if the model took off her shirt in front of the school. This was a loosing battle, since we didn't have the security of a blue box to stand in, I decided we needed to move to the next blue box which was half a block East near I-4. I shook the guards hand, thanked him for his help, and we headed East.

Blue Box number 7 was also torn up by construction, but there was a hint of several blue dotted lines remaining on a curb. Yellow caution tape separated us from being able to stand in the patch of dirt which had once been the blue box.  We decided instead to set up outside the rented fence near the Orlando Centroplex sign. Yvonne showed up just as Mandi was settled in. I was in the midst of blocking in my sketch, and I didn't want to spread my cold, so I kept working. This was the first time that the performers were not protected by actually standing inside a  blue box. The stakes were high, but Mandi and the model bravely took the chance. City codes on indecent exposure had been researched, and the model could have legally been painted in nothing but pasties and panties, but Nix Herrera another body painter, had advised Mandi against taking the chance. It could have resulted in regulations for an art form that has so far stayed off the city commissioners radars.

With a liberating flourish, the model took of her shirt and her black bra defied any notion of indecent exposure. The race was on to complete the sketch and body painting before we were caught. Mandi began by painting a blue box on Yvonne's belly, then she began painting iconic Orlando imagery, like a swan, the fountain, an orange breast, and the skyline wedged in Yvonne's cleavage. Ten minutes into the sketch, I felt that art had won. I had enough on the page, so that even if police or security stopped us, I could finish the sketch back at the studio. A construction worker asked what are were doing. I discussed the blue boxes and explained that we would be done within an hour. "I don't mind." he said with a smile.  Theo Lotz, the Flying Horse Editions director from UCF also asked about our project and I quickly explained the Blue Box Initiative. I get excited, having the chance to explain the need for free artistic expression. His bus arrived and he had to run off mid sentence.

We were right near a bus stop and each time a bus stopped you could see a dozen passengers with then noses pressed against the windows. A driver honked his approval. My quick rough sketches don't do Mandi's amazing work  justice. Be sure to check out these photos her fiance Robert Johnston took. It certainly felt like we were tempting fate on this day, but some amazing art was created.  Yvonne became a gorgeous living postcard that celebrated the City Beautiful.

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at

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