NSFW: Trina Merry Is Painting Nudes at Famous S.F. Landmarks

Trina Merry is standing in front of a mural in the middle of Clarion Alley, daubing paint on a topless woman’s torso with the help of her assistant. A few young children and their mothers pay close attention, the occasional mural tourists smile and ask a polite question, and some drunks in stuporous violation of the sit/lie ordinance look on from 40 feet away. At one point, a Smart Car passes and we all step aside like suburban kids playing street hockey, but otherwise, Merry works unmolested.

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Her camouflage project, begun right here on Clarion Alley five years ago, has taken her around the world. She is reclaiming public spaces on behalf of the fine art nude, a venerable cultural institution that’s increasingly under threat from online prudishness, by painting them to blend in with their surroundings. She and her team have just come from the Golden Gate Bridge, and they’ll be at four other places over the course of the weekend.

When I mention, half-kidding, that I’m not sure if we’re allowed to have boobies on SF Weekly’s site, Merry offers to conceal her topless model’s bosom, until I protest, saying that it felt like a censorship.

“That’s the whole point,” Merry said. “To get rid of the censorship and to bring back the fine art nude. All of the poses are informed by famous fine art nudes. This one is Madonna and Child. Earlier we did the Three Graces by Raphael, tomorrow is Venus by Botticelli. It’s very inclusive, so anyone who identifies as a woman was invited to be a part of this. We’re having a variety of body shapes, which is different from my usual work.”

It’s a big challenge, Merry says, because while hard architectural lines against soft human flesh is “a really beautiful juxtaposition,” the contrasts become more difficult from a technical perspective.

“I really have camo down,” Merry said. “My shortest camo was done in 30 minutes at Chichen Itza.

She’s painted bodies at the Great Wall of China, Macchu Pichu, Giza, and Petra, Jordan (among other places). Did she really paint nudes in conservative Jordan?

“He was wearing underwear,” Merry said. “They almost arrested me. I don’t know if they would have been generous enough to deport me.”

She’s managed to go this long without ever having been arrested. Sometimes cops see it and “don’t know what to make of it.”

“They go, ‘Oh, this is weird, and we don’t have a context for this.’ But I’m covered by the First Amendment and the Fair Use Act. It’s educational for the cops, they always end up hanging out and taking pictures.”

Although Merry’s weekend in San Francisco is making use of a diverse array of body types, she doesn’t consider her work body-positive, preferring to call it a “body-variety series.”

“There are really buff chicks and we’ve got more fleshy chicks. We’ve got a really old woman I painted this morning and now I’m going to paint a baby.”

He is a mostly willing subject, and because he’s so small, Merry gets the job done quickly. The Clarion Alley mural is an image of a vaguely South Asian-looking woman with the words “Tell Me What You’ve Seen Today,” which Merry chose because the text resonated with her theme of censorship and because the woman looked like a Madonna.

I stand on the faint foot outlines Merry has painted on the asphalt, stoop down so I’m at her height, and see that the Madonna and Child in front of me does in fact bleed into the background almost exactly (except for the model’s Murakami flower-print leggings, which happen to match up with another mural up the block).

She is a UC Berkeley alum named Samantha who began working with Merry almost immediately upon graduating, and who painted Wenchi, Merry’s assistant, earlier that day near the Golden Gate Bridge. Wenchi’s hair is still full of pigment.

Switching jobs isn’t altogether easy, Wenchi said.

“I’m very scientific with my painting and my makeup work, whereas modeling, I have to space out and defocus to focus on not being cold. We were right on the battery at the Presidio with the bridge right there and it’s like, 25-30 mile per hour winds, and mist blowing al over you the whole time. It was fun. I’m excited to be camo’d into the Golden Gate Bridge now. It was pretty epic.”

They’ve been working, in intermittent drizzle, for about an hour. Merry will document Samantha, and the women she paints at the Exploratorium, the Painted Ladies, and the Palace of Fine Arts in the days to come, but she can’t really put any of her work on Instagram. In spite of being perfectly legal and far from pornographic, the boobie algorithm will inevitably hunt her down.

“I always have to blur out the nipples,” Merry said. “I’m very, very grateful for social media, but I really want to reclaim the fine art nude for the contemporary voice in America.”

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