I attended a moderately-sized cosplay photoshoot on Saturday, April 13th at Navy Pier. This was a private event in order to control attendance size. The organizers took steps to ensure that enforcers and coordinators were clearly identified. Face paint, weapons, and other questionable props were banned. Whenever an attendee was getting out of hand regarding hijinks, profanity, and other inconsiderate behavior, they acted swiftly to curtail the problem. A few security guards approached the group throughout the day to inquire about and compliment the costumes. It was an enjoyable meetup for the two hours I had attended.
The next day, I received messages from other attendees. The meetup had been disbanded without warning by Navy Pier personnel four hours into the event. And that’s all fine and good considering it’s city property and they have an obligation to uphold public safety. But that was not the reason the group was given. They were first told they didn’t request permission to hold a group gathering of their size. Then the story changed. The new response was the group did not obtain photography and videography permits. Most cities require permits for photography, videography or filming of commercial work for fees, taxation, and insurance purposes. According to an organizer [name withheld], no previous cosplay gathering at the pier faced ejection, nor were permit requirements listed on the Navy Pier website regarding hobby photography at the time of event planning.
Yet the group was publicly escorted off-premise.
Cosplay photographer and meetup attendee Ronald Ladao recaps the incident as “a long shameful walk out of the pier with golf carts with the lights on.” Attendees were told to leave the pier immediately or face ticketing. No one was allowed to retrieve their belongings, get their vehicles, or even use the restroom without exhaustive bargaining with lead security personnel. This suggests that they did in fact view the meetup as a public security concern of some kind. Considering the trouble Chicago’s had with real, violent mobs to date, Navy Pier has every right to eject large groups. But a full security escort under the guise of lacking permits is just plain wrong. Not to say cosplayers would receive different treatment if they went through proper channels to obtain a permit, but there’s a line between enforcement and embarrassment. If a bridal party showed up unannounced, would they be ejected in the same manner? The real problem: It appears that most un-initiated bystanders cannot differentiate between cosplay photoshoots, harmless flash mobs, and violent flash mobs that often include gang activity.
The Chicago cosplay community is not unfamiliar with these kinds of tactics, incidents, and in some cases, discrimination. Ladao continues “…I said, “So, how long do you guys think until we get kicked out?” Because I have experienced this at [previous incidents]. It isn’t a bummer if you’re kind of expecting this to happen.”
Then do cosplayers ask for this kind of treatment by holding public photoshoots? Some argue cosplay is all about shock value and upsetting the norm. Other critics feel that public cosplay photoshoots are rife with disruptive behavior and these groups are just asking for police intervention. But no one ever asks to be publicly humiliated. It’s unfortunate that security personnel and staff are unprepared or unwilling to treat cosplayers and photographers as adults, as equals, and as artists. In their eyes, we are lesser and that’s the way we’re treated.
So where do cosplayers go to express their love of anime, costumes and Chicago in public? Is there a place for us? For starters, choose public landmarks that are less touristy such as Ping Tom in Chinatown, Osaka Gardens in Hyde Park, Lincoln Park Zoo, among numerous beaches, gardens and pavilions. We pay taxes. These spaces are available to all Chicagoans. It’s best to call the Chicago Park District or other location staff in advance to obtain the proper group permits. Give them fair notice and leave the realistic weapon props at home.
How about your rights as a photographer? The ACLU has a guide on that very topic. If you feel your rights have been violated, know that you can take legal action but it gets costly. We’re passionate about our hobbies as anime fans. But they often leave us with empty wallets.
Will there be a day where people “get it?” We may not be Akihabara, but Chicago is slowly becoming a haven for geeks and nerds of all types. There are at least ten local conventions with a focus on cosplay and Masquerades, an initiative to open a dedicated Geek Bar, and cosplay representatives marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, all within the last year. Perhaps the stigma will fade. But at its heart, cosplay may always be a spectacle to western culture.