The “How Berkeley Can You Be!?” parade and festival—an event local organizers proudly bill as “part question, part challenge, all celebration”—will mark its 14th anniversary this September. Berkeleyans of every stripe will march down Telegraph. Following tradition, some of the marchers may be nude, many will be costumed, and nearly all of them will be making a statement of one sort or another. This is, after all, a big part of what it means to be “Berkeley”: Everyone gets their say.
Probably no one in Berkeley ever made a more revealing statement than Andrew Martinez, who as a Cal student in the early ’90s, became nationally famous as the Naked Guy. Just by taking off his clothes and going about his business in the buff, he seemed to become the very embodiment of the more radical aspects of the Berkeley spirit: a question, a challenge, and a celebration all in one. In the process, he also tested Berkeley’s idea of itself as a bastion of tolerance.
Like well-meaning parents, both the University and the city were tolerant of Martinez’s “militant nudism”—his own preferred term for what he was up to—at first. For a semester, he was allowed to attend classes naked, and although he was arrested for jogging in the nude one night near the dorms, the charges were dropped after the prosecutor reasoned that nudity without lewd behavior didn’t break any laws. It was only after some female students lodged complaints about the Naked Guy’s state of undress that the University adopted a rule explicitly forbidding nudity on campus. Martinez was finally expelled after turning up at a disciplinary hearing—naked. The city followed suit seven months later, adopting an anti-nudity ordinance in July 1993. Martinez was the first person arrested under the new law. He showed up at City Hall to protest its passage—naked—and was sentenced to two years probation.
Through it all, the Naked Guy’s fame soared. Overnight, it seemed, he became a de facto emissary from Berzerkeley, that fabled republic where, in the popular imagination at least, anything goes. People who couldn’t locate San Francisco Bay on a map had nevertheless heard on CNN all about the Naked Guy’s exploits and watched him on the daytime talk shows, sitting there with his crotch blurred out, calmly fielding questions as audience members gasped and giggled.
No doubt the Naked Guy’s “success” was partly a result of his looks. Tall and dark with a physique suitable for a study in bronze or marble, he may be the only person ever to have appeared in both Playgirl and Playboy. Still, his attraction was more than skin-deep. By all accounts, Martinez was also charismatic and kind. Even on television, under the glare of the studio lights, he seemed preternaturally calm and unselfconscious. He was disarming precisely because he did not give off the creepy-crazy vibes one expects to emanate from a man strolling campus in nothing but a book bag and flip-flops.
Why did he do it? The answers he gave to that question were never entirely satisfactory. Sometimes he explained it in purely sensual terms: It just felt good to be without clothes. At other times he struggled to formulate a political rationale to justify his actions. Martinez’s politics were vague at best, a poorly articulated dissent from “Western society” and “middle-class values.” But if his political notions seemed like the tacked-on rhetoric of youthful rebellion, they also proved self-sustaining. He once told an interviewer, “If it weren’t for the politics, then I probably wouldn’t do it anymore, just because the hassle of being this big spectacle—people saying things, like, ‘Oh my god he’s nude!’ and police having to deal with all this stuff continually—it isn’t really worth the small pleasure it is to have this one part of my body exposed.”
He wasn’t alone in his militancy. At the first “nude-in” on Sproul Plaza in September 1992, he was joined by other devotees to the cause, including the X-plicit Players—a nude performance art troupe headed up by Berkeley residents Debbie Moore and Marty Kent. As Moore later told The Berkeley Daily Planet, “There were 10,000 people cheering him that day, cheering what he stood for—a society sans racism, sans greed, sans oppression.”
After his expulsion from Cal, Martinez continued to hang around Berkeley, eventually living in a tent atop one of the co-ops. Friends say his behavior grew more erratic as his fame subsided, and eventually he moved back home to Cupertino. Even as the Naked Guy faded into legend, however, the X-plicit Players soldiered on, parading none-too-clever slogans such as “Breasts not Bombs” and, in the lead-up to the 2004 presidential election, “Get Your Bush Out to Get Bush Out.”
These days nudity has become a popular and predictable form of protest. In response to war, naked bodies are laid out on beaches or meadows, arranged to form peace signs or to spell out words like LOVE and HOPE. Women go topless to protest sweatshops, supermodels bare it all in opposition to fur, hundreds of naked people stand atop a melting glacier to “raise awareness” of climate change. And so on.
It was no great surprise, then, that naked bodies were recruited in the battle over the oaks of Memorial Stadium. In March 2007, a few dozen protesters, following the direction of photographer Jack Gescheidt, stripped down to demonstrate their vulnerability in solidarity with the trees. The event was documented on video, and watching it now on YouTube, it’s hard not to think of Mario Savio’s famous rallying cry for the Free Speech Movement—that stirring bit about how there comes a time when “you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus—and you’ve got to make it stop!” Here were Savio’s words made flesh, and if the flesh wasn’t being applied to any actual machinery, then at least it was draped in the trees and strewn across the ground long enough to compose an arresting photograph.
The official response was a shrug. Despite the campus ordinance against public nudity, the police allowed the stunt to unfold without making any arrests. When it was over, the protesters hugged and smiled and celebrated, but the trees came down all the same, after the last of the tree-sitters were flushed from their roosts. So it goes.
As for Andrew Martinez, he made it back into the news on May 21, 2006. A headline in the San Francisco Chronicle that day read “Champion of nudity found dead in jail cell.” Years after leaving Berkeley, Martinez had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. According to the article, he had struggled with mental illness for at least a decade, “bouncing among halfway houses, psychiatric institutions, occasional homelessness and jail, but never getting comprehensive treatment.” In the end, he pulled a plastic bag over his head and suffocated himself. He was 33.
There is a romantic idea that insanity is a sane reaction to a world gone mad, and upon the news of his death, some of Martinez’s fans were inclined to see his death as a kind of martyrdom. “I think fame drove him over the edge,” wrote an admirer in a reminiscence for the alternative news outlet, New America Media. “By naming him The Naked Guy,” she wrote, “we all drove him crazy.”
The X-plicit Players’ Debbie Moore, for her part, told The Berkeley Daily Planet that it was “shocking to see how society moved him to a deeper and deeper level of isolation.” When she spoke to Martinez after he’d left Berkeley, she recalled, “I heard frustration, I heard agony for the endless psychiatric sessions he had to go through, the social norms he had to follow.”
More people were probably inclined to reevaluate the Naked Guy’s antics in light of his mental illness. It is, after all, an obvious and easy conclusion to draw: He was crazy the whole time. But who knows?
Mark Vonnegut—the author Kurt Vonnegut’s son—wrote a memoir about going crazy. Like Martinez, he was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. Unlike Martinez, he survived to tell the tale. In the preface to his book, Vonnegut writes, “Colds, ulcers, flu, and cancer are things we get. Schizophrenia is something we are.” An insidious disease, it weaves itself “inextricably into what we call ourselves. It can transform only a small corner of our lives or turn the whole show upside-down, always giving few if any clues as to when it came or when it left or what was us and what was schiz.” Really all we can say with any certainty is that Andrew Martinez’s story ended early and tragically.
The title of Mark Vonnegut’s book is The Eden Express, which seems fitting for the purposes of this essay, since any meditation on nudity inevitably leads back to the beginning, to the time before time, before we knew we were different from the other animals, when we walked naked and oblivious in Paradise. Striding around campus naked and unselfconscious, Andrew Martinez was like that—a living, breathing repudiation of Original Sin.
That kind of innocence doesn’t last.