Every summer for the past six years or so, I have had one tiny sigh of regret while setting off on whatever my current adventure is — missing the Coney Island Mermaid Parade again.
Since the first moment I heard of this offbeat celebration of everything exotic and erotic underwater, I have been dying to take part. Unfortunately, June always seems to be a busy month for me — which the Mermaid Parade is smack in the middle of, taking place on the Saturday closest to the official first calendar day of the summer season.
The parade dates back to 1983, when it first started bringing creative costumes, passionate merrymakers, vintage cars, elaborate floats and general revelry down Neptune Avenue and across the boardwalk. According to Coney Island USA, this event is “The largest art parade in the nation. A celebration of ancient mythology and honky-tonk rituals of the seaside. A showcase for over 1,500 creative individuals from all over the five boroughs and beyond, opening the summer with incredible art, entrepreneurial spirit and community pride.”
Thirty years later, despite Hurricane Sandy threatening to cancel the event, the stars aligned for my visit home and I was finally able to participate! Spoiler alert: I loved every minute.
Zoe and I along with this years’ King Neptune and the Mermaid Queen
While most of my friends couldn’t fathom braving the heat and crowds, my partner in crime Zoe agrees with my life philosophy to never says no to a chance to dress up ridiculously and dance like a fool in public. She even threw together last minute costumes for us after poor planning found me in Brooklyn and my mermaid Halloween costume stuck up in Albany.
Our late night supply run to Ricky’s on the eve of the parade ended in laughter when we listened to the sales girl explain the lack of face paint selection to a clueless patron: “Don’t you understand? The Mermaid Parade is tomorrow. Everybody in Brooklyn done come in here already!”
The air was thick with excitement and spray-on glitter when we got off the subway and headed towards Surf Avenue (I love the street names around here!) We managed to slip into the line up easily, though we were stopped regularly by street photographers going shutter crazy behind the barriers. I felt slightly awkward posing at first but figured it was payback time for the amount of portrait photography I’ve wrangled subjects into in my travels. The amount of cameras in the crowd is astounding — don’t come in costume unless you’re ready for hundreds of lenses aimed your way.
We arrived early for once in our short lives, and were treated to plenty of time to gawk at the vintage muscle cars, elaborate floats and themed vehicles. It had been less than an hour when I turned to Zoe and shouted over the party music coming from one of the floats, “this is SO Brooklyn!” It’s the Brooklyn that inspires so much pride and fierce protection — weird, wacky, loud and proud Brooklyn that spans ages, races, and economic classes.
Despite the amount of bare flesh on display, I was not surprised to see people of all ages, from kidlets to grandparents. The Mermaid Parade manages to strike a rare balance between flirtatious sensuality and wholesome family fun.
Groups ranged from rowdy bands of frat boys dressed as Neptunes to floats of little girls as Arial mermaids to couples sharing a fun day and tender moments in elaborate theme costumes.
The amount of time, effort, and artistry that went into some of the costumes I saw was astounding! I had thought Zoe and I to be quiet clever when we left the house after a frenzied hour with some scissors, Fabric District found materials, and glue gun — but we were put to shame! Body paint was an obvious popular choice.
Some mermaids really wowed me with their creative use of materials. Two of my favorites from the day were the straw mermaid and the duct tape mermaid — both of whom were kind enough to pose for me.
Others turned themselves into elaborate living sculptures, from sushi to seahorses. I laughed out loud when I saw these sea anemonies crafted from pool floats — what amazing creativity!
I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun behind the camera. There were just endless amounts of people having a blast and looking fabulous, and you can’t ask for better subjects than that (though you can ask for better lighting than midday harsh sunlight!) Unlike many parades, the Mermaid Parade has no religious significance, no ethnic background, and no commercial cause. It’s just a celebration of all things sea and summer at the hands of artistic New Yorkers.
My favorite part of the day was when we walked past the judging stands and entered the home stretch towards the boardwalk. We found a fantastic band and a great group of dancers and marched/danced with them the rest of the way. The energy could only be described as epic — it was such a high!
Please forgive me for the offensive font in this video. My final change didn’t save and I was lucky enough to have one successful upload on Indonesian wifi.
As we approached the U-turn onto the boardwalk portion of the parade, we started to pass all the iconic Coney Island hotspots– Nathan’s Hot Dogs, The Cyclone roller coaster, and Luna Park.
All along Surf Avenue I had been thinking that really, the crowds weren’t that bad. Then we reached the boardwalk. Holy wow! So that’s where the masses were hiding. While the boardwalk definitely made a more attractive backdrop for photos than the street had, I couldn’t take the crush and Zoe and I ducked out and into one of the boardwalk restaurants for some frozen drinks and other beachside treats.
By the time we ventured back out, things had turned into a full blown street party with bands on the boardwalk, towel-to-towel throngs on the beach and humans literally in every direction imaginable. I got a major kick out of this faux-camera wielding partier, who had clearly been to the Mermaid Parade and seen it’s deluge of photographers before.
Before heading to a party in Rockaway for the evening, Zoe and I kicked off my inaugural Mermaid Parade with a spin on the Wonder Wheel, one of Coney Islands’ most quintessential experiences.
I can’t say more about what a fun day this was. I enjoyed it as a spectator, a participant and a photographer. It was the perfect kick-off for summer in one of my favorite areas in Brooklyn. Now that I see the love poured into the costumes parading down the boardwalk, I’m doubly inspired to prepare something fabulous for next time. Let’s just say I’m already enthusiastically working the 2014 Mermaid Parade into my plans for next year!
Which was your favorite costume? I think I have to go with the straw mermaid, or the pool float sea anemones!