The short answer is no. There are signs put at each end of Times Square clearly stating tipping street performers is optional. During my first couple of trips to New York, and in particular my first ever trip to the US I was caught out multiple times by different schemes aimed at innocent travellers caught up in the bright lights of the big city.
Don’t be caught out by common Times Square scams
Here is my advice and recommendations for some of the most common street performance groups / scams that run in and around Times Square.
Groups to watch for:
You will see everyone from Elmo and Iron Man to Mickey and Mini Mouse, Ana & Elsa from Frozen, Spiderman, Buzz Lightyear, The Penguin from Batman and Minions – lots and lots of Minions and many more all running around Times Square
Desnuda (topless) girls of Times Square
In the warmer months tourists (young and old) will be greeted by scantily clad women walking the streets of Times Square in nothing more than skimpy underwear, footwear, massive headdresses and strategically placed body paint.
The wannabe Jay Z recording artists
Generally on the busy sidewalks of Times Square you will find a group of generally young men who are trying to get unsuspecting tourists to buy their latest release in the hopes that they will become a viral hit.
For years the original Times Square Street Performer was the Naked Cowboy who graced the streets of Times Square in all weather all year round in nothing more than his Y-front undies, cowboy boots and hat and his guitar. These days he is not as common as he once was – which is a major shame.
Street dance groups
Depending on the time of year groups of young men and women will set up in Times Square and pretend that they are trying to get on the next season of So You Think You Can Dance and attempt to amaze tourists with the electrifying dance skills.
Tactics they employ – Cartoon Characters
On my last trip to New York I specifically spent some time in Times Square over a weekend to get an idea of the tactics which these street performers use to harass unsuspecting tourists into parting with their hard earned cash.
Be warned – they are very good (and sneaky) at what they do.
The most effective tactic seemed to involve one character persuading and encouraging a couple or family with young children to take a photo them and as soon as “the deal” had been agreed upon and the photos began to be taken, almost out of no where another 2, 3, 4 or 5 characters would suddenly turn up and be in the photo, with the unsuspecting victim being harassed into tipping each performer individually, taking a small tip of a dollar up to much more.
Another such tactic is to just surround and harass a young family with multiple children as they have just entered Times Square pedestrian plaza at either the corner of 42nd Street & Broadway or the corner of 47th Street and Broadway, more often than not of an ethnic background.
Tactics they employ – Desnuda (topless) girls
The Desnuda girls employ probably the least aggressive approach of all street performers, as you can imagine, walking around Times Square in body paint will invariably draw a crowd to them. That does not stop them from casually asking every passer by if they want a photo, which depending on who they are asking will be met with a stern look from a wife / mother, or in some cases an eager acceptance from a group of men trying to find the next bar.
Tactics they employ – Wannabe recording artists
In my opinion the most devious tactic used in Times Square from so called street performers are the recording artist / peddlers who will physically force a CD into your hand and then demand cash from you arguing that you buy the product from them, all the while ensuring their “entourage” quickly surrounds you to say how good the music is and how much you will enjoy it.
If the target happens to be a couple of any age, the swindlers will often make mention of being the next Barry White and that he is doing them a favour!!
Tactics they employ – Naked Cowboy
Easily one of the best parts of the Naked Cowboy’s performance was / is the fact that he is a true street performer, in that he walks around signing and playing his guitar to entertain the crowds. Gaining the notoriety that he has enjoyed he simply needs to turn up and the crowds will flock to him, so again there is very little in the way of sinister tactics employed by the Naked Cowboy.
Tactics they employ – Street Dance Groups
Loud music! Street dancers tend to be a bit old school in the tactics which they use to get noticed – make a lot of noise and then hope to wow the crowd with their moves.
What action has been taken to improve the situation
During the last New York Summer there were major outcries from Midtown locals and local business owners that the street performers in Times Square were becoming extremely rude and pushy and having a negative affect on the overall ambiance of Times Square, particularly for young families when combining the fact they were being targeted by the cartoon characters but also the abundance of half naked females openly walking around.
The New York Mayor and NYPD decided to re-establish a dedicated Times Square police force which had recently been disbanded to return some police deterrent to the area, as well as the erection of signs outlining the fact that street performers do not need to be tipped.
How much should I tip
|Cartoon characters||As a general rule of thumb I consider a $1 tip per photo opportunity more than acceptable for the cartoon characters roaming around Times Square|
|Desnuda Girls||The average per photo is $1 I have heard that some people tip up $5 or $10, but I dare say they are getting caught up in the moment, and the girls are playing up to the experience as well.|
|Wannabe recording artists||Avoid at all costs, if someone tries to put something in your hand just drop it and keep walking.|
|The Naked Cowboy||I am always prepared to part with a couple of bucks if any sort of performance is worthy. Just the fact that he walks around Times Square in a New York Winter for me was good enough reason to give him a couple of $1 bills.|
|Street dance groups||Again depending on the quality of the performance and how they actually go about collecting the tips. I am more inclined to give up to $5 if the dancing and music is good (i.e. the routine matches the music) and that they are not aggressively coming through the crowd right after the performance has ended, rather just leaving a couple of buckets around their “dance area” for those wishing to tip to be able to do so of their own free will.|
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General recommendations & observations
The best advice that I can give based on what has worked for me, and what I have witnessed is to be resolute if you do not want to be involved. Particularly with the cartoon characters if you make it crystal clear that you will not be giving them any money they will get the idea very quickly and move on quickly – at the end of the day they are looking for a quick easy scam and they have become good at being able to determine if a “target” is worth pushing or knowing when to give up.
If you do want to engage any of the performers make it clear at the beginning how much you are planning on tipping. For example say you want to get a photo of your son / daughter with Ironman say that you will only give him $1 for each child and that’s it. Again be forceful and resolute, the law is on your side and being Times Square there is an abundance of police on every corner, no matter the time of day or night.
If you have any questions about New York street performers or any New York question in general use the comments below or our Ask a Question section.