After a spate of arrests and bad publicity, the costumed characters who pose for tourist photographs in New York's Times Square in the hopes of a cash tip have formed an association to preserve a livelihood that has come under increasing scrutiny.
Dozens of people dressed as Spider-Man, Batman, Elmo, Mickey Mouse and other children's favorites, roam the crowded sidewalks and pedestrian plazas around Times Square each day, beckoning toward passing kids and their camera-toting parents.
Jorge, an immigrant from Mexico, poses with women while dressed as the Sesame Street character Elmo in Times Square, New York. (Reuters file photo)
But city officials from the mayor down have painted them as pests who harass the city's visitors. Police have arrested several performers in recent months, and began handing out flyers at the weekend telling tourists to call the 911 emergency number with any complaints about the characters.
The new association - a sort of cross between an informal union and The Justice League - wants to fight back against that image, according to Yamil Morales, one of the group's organizers.
"We're people who want to be treated as workers with dignity and not be treated as cartoon characters just because we wear a mask," Morales said in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter. A large number of the performers are immigrants from Latin America.
They are calling themselves the Association of Artists United for a Smile, a name chosen to reflect their claim that a tourist's happiness is no less important than any tip he or she might give.
The Times Square Alliance shows a detail from a leaflet being handed out by police in Times Square informing tourists that photos with costumed characters are free and tipping is optional.(AP photo)
Morales, a Colombian living in New York City who spends 40 minutes each day getting dressed up as the Penguin, says he came up with the idea along with a Batman.
More than 100 characters have since joined, he said, and dozens of them met early on Tuesday at the offices of La Fuente, an advocacy group for immigrant workers.
"One of the things that we want to see is that the cops trust us a little bit more," Morales said, explaining that a meeting with police officials was at the top of the characters' agenda. "We want to get the rules from them and get the idea of proper procedure."
The police department did not respond to a request for comment.
Actress Gillian Jacobs and The Laughing Cow snap selfies in Times Square as part of the brand's Reinvent Snacking event in New York City. (AP photo)
Alex Gomez, the communications director for La Fuente who interpreted for Morales, said the characters had been unfairly vilified in the wake of recent arrests, including a Spider-Man charged with punching a police officer who intervened in a tipping dispute last month.
"One or two bad apples have made the whole bunch look bad," he said.