NEW YORK (AP) — On a crowded pedestrian plaza in Times Square, half a dozen topless women pose for pictures with passers-by. The only thing concealing their breasts is red, white and blue body paint.
They urge men, women and even children to stand with them, first taking a frontal shot, then the backside. In return, they expect a tip.
"People are having fun. There's no problem," says Saira Nicole, one of the topless women.
But in the past few weeks, their painted bodies have been splashed on tabloid covers as proof of what some say is increasing seediness at the "Crossroads of the World." Frustrated politicians would like to regulate the presence of the women and the many costumed characters such as Elmo and Cookie Monster who populate the plaza. But they have no clear idea how.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he believes the women are engaging in an illegal activity that harkens to the "bad old Times Square." And Mayor Bill de Blasio this week formed a task force to look at how to regulate "aggressive solicitation." He suggested one solution would be simply to do away with the pedestrian area where they gather.
The experience of millions of tourists "has been diminished by the proliferation of topless individuals and costumed characters who too often harass people and expose families to inappropriate acts," the mayor said.
City officials have already brainstormed solutions that include licensing those who troll for tips in furry costumes or pushing them out of the square. But the city and the Times Square Alliance, which regulates activity there, have so far taken only one step: posting notices and handing out flyers informing visitors that tips are not an obligation.
Legal experts say the quandary is whether the activity amounts to a street performance protected by the First Amendment or a form of commercial activity that can be regulated. There's nothing illegal in New York City about going topless (with or without body paint), parading around in a furry costume or even begging for money in most places.
New York's position on toplessness dates to 1992, when the state's highest court ruled that it was discriminatory to bar women from going bare-chested when men are routinely allowed to do so.
"There's no clear legal path to address this issue," says New York-based civil rights attorney Ron Kuby. "It's hard to take two things that are legal — being bare-breasted and begging for money — and turn them into something illegal."
"Sure, it's like a burlesque show. But it's the basic entrepreneurial American spirit: You see a niche and you fill it."
Police can do little to curb the behavior unless they see panhandling in the subways, which is illegal, or someone complains of assault or harassment.
Last year, a Spider-Man figure in the same area punched a police officer trying to prevent aggressive solicitation, and a man dressed as Cookie Monster attacked a 2-year-old child whose parents had not tipped. Police Commissioner William Bratton told 1010 WINS radio Thursday that he's looking into the labor practices of the characters, residency requirements and whether taxes were being paid.
Nicole and Angel Bunting are part of a threesome of friends who work the south end of Times Square, approaching pedestrians with smiles and keeping a polite distance. Pointing at the other end of the square, Bunting acknowledged that a small group of topless women working there display the kind of in-your-face behavior that is drawing negative attention.
"Some of the girls are maybe a little more aggressive, but we do not work that way," Bunting, 32, said on a recent steamy afternoon. "We wouldn't want somebody touching us. We also wouldn't want somebody touching our child. Absolutely not."
Nicole said she used to work in music management but lost her job and couldn't find other work in the weak jobs market. "And this is what I found. And now I love it."
Bunting, who once worked in retail, is in the square from about 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. She considers her role part of the crowded, happy scene.
"It's a celebration of life. It's a celebration of New York City. It's a celebration of women's bodies," she said.
Tom McKelvey, a 53-year-old married businessman from Jacksonville, Florida, said he was waiting for a picture with the Naked Cowboy "and this woman kind of walked up. So I said, 'OK, I'll take a picture with you.'"
McKelvey walked off with a grin — and lipstick on his cheek.
Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.