People watching is a beloved pastime in Baltimore, as so much of the city’s social calendar has been built around opportunities for voyeurism. The Kinetic Sculpture Race, Lithuanian Hall, SOWEBO Festival, The Erotic Art Show, The Lexington Market Fashion Show, and Pride, are all prime attractions for prospective voyeurs. But there are two events, paired together by fate, that have introduced a much needed diversity to disrupt the rigidity of staid convention traditions: BronyCon and Otakon.
Otakon was the first to arrive. After a brief stint in Hunt Valley, it set up shop in the Baltimore Convention Center – home base since 1999. In its 20th forum for America’s anime needs, Otakon has announced that they will be departing Baltimore in 2017 for Washington D.C. The organizers cite a lack of space as the major reason behind the relocation; Baltimore isn’t big enough, which is fair considering Otakon’s size. In 2013 there were well over 100,000 attendees recorded, an increase of almost 11% from the year prior, while BronyCon – the official convention for fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – tallied nearly 10,000 guests in 2013.
The growth of both conventions is encouraged by Baltimore City, a place that has become synonymous with fandom. When the Baltimore Convention Center was opened in 1979, Mayor William Donald Schaefer highlighted the structure as a key component in his plan to revitalize the city’s inner harbor. Almost forty years later, the summer brings a staggering numbers of tourists downtown.
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August always begins with a flush of pedestrians. Sidewalk traffic starts to overflow onto Pratt Street; water vendors hawk one dollar bottles via megaphone; food trucks selling identical ice cream compete for clients; and costumed consumers cover everything. It becomes commonplace to spy a man dressed as either a horse or a wizard. Masked strangers wield exotic weaponry – oversized hammers, assault rifles with orange tips, and rainbow katanas. Despite the difference in dress, each person has come to celebrate their passion with friends and strangers.
On the first Friday of BronyCon, the streets are filled with curious spectators who’ve lined the bars and restaurants in the hopes of glimpsing a real Brony. Wicked thoughts fill the minds of business suited boys; they start to giggle when they spy someone with pink hair and secretly pray that at any moment spontaneous sex will erupt. Others suspect darker perversions are afoot. There are some critics that believe in the corruption of the Brony. They fear a public/private perversion that masks its self as a man with a purse, staring off into the distance, the rubber eyes of his horse head helmet never betraying the true target of his gaze: bar food.
For some, the real focal point is the mysterious “furry” – a creature that exists in the uncanny valley between baseball mascot and TV dinosaur. Furries are often seen traveling in pairs and under the direction of a watcher – a person who is not in costume that acts as the furry’s personal bodyguard, chaperone, promoter, and medic. Furries have been spied aboard the Constellation, where they pose for pictures and straddle the mast. They have been glimpsed inside of Barnes and Noble, emptying their animal bladders in public bathrooms. They disappear at night and emerge in the morning, a blank, carefree smile perpetually stapled to the upholstery of their lips.
I’m a citizen voyeur; my costume is business casual. With the exception of this year, I’ve joined the rest of the office crowd to marvel and gawk at the festivities. There were a number of times when I sat at California Tortilla, Corona in hand, and entertained three different conversations about masked orgies. Something about a disguise is effortlessly erotic. Onlookers can’t shake the thought that sex is somehow deeply intertwined with the goings on at the convention center, which acts as a clubhouse for those with badges. In the name of education I applied for press passes this year, one for BronyCon and one for Otakon, and received both; I was overjoyed. It’s not often that I get the privilege to observe with purpose, and so on the Saturday of BronyCon I went to get my credentials. To the uninitiated, entering some of the rooms in the Baltimore Convention Center is comparable to standing in the middle of a Hollywood set. Registration is held inside of an auditorium that looks like it was designed to hatch dinosaur eggs; each dent in the ceiling has an enormous light that sends out rays of blinding halogen strong enough to melt the fillings in your mouth. After a brief ritual I was gifted a pass and sent off; my first stop was the dealer’s room.
The dealer’s room is madness with a price tag. Card tables are evenly spaced apart, covering the floor. Each surface is stacked high with racks and shelves and toys and pins and dolls. Hungry BronyCon attendees flock to these booths with complete abandon: they’re searching for things they’ll cherish. I was immediately impressed by the eclectic supply of merchandise, ranging from hand painted pony art to lovingly crafted figurines. Nothing about the goods seemed cheap; passion was injected into every product. Apparently, the Brony fan base is very engaged in expanding their culture, as they want to open their love of the show to different forms of art and expression. In terms of demographics, it was impossible not to make note of the staggering amount of men – the numbers for 2013 suggested a ratio of 3:1 men to women.
I wandered the halls of the convention center, stopping occasionally to consult a map. It was my goal to visit each and every interesting sight and sound, but the more I walked, the more I realized that I was completely overwhelmed. A few hours swam by, and I occasionally retreated to Pratt Street Ale House to recuperate, drink water, and process what I had seen. And it was in those moments of quiet contemplation that I realized, despite the inclusive nature of the community, the convention was not for me. It seemed very fun from an outsider perspective, full of mystery and charm, but it was a commitment not designed for the casual observer. Now, I’m not here to lampoon the convention and use it as a sacrificial lamb for some greater perceived problem with a cartoon-centric subculture, I only mean to suggest that it’s more involved than it may seem.
BronyCon attendees are not fans that come to Baltimore to sit on square rugs, cross their legs, and watch My Little Pony in a cuddle puddle. Instead, they’re eager to analyze the social fabric of their community, exploring the minutia of fandom; there are lectures on doll maintenance, panels on gender issues, and a number of other group conversations that are designed to elevate discourse in an open atmosphere. I never expected the level of introspective wonderment to be so total in its coverage, but every aspect of fandom was represented in the sprawling complex of the Baltimore Convention Center.
Otakon, the second head of the dragon, comes exactly a week after BronyCon departs, drawing enough people to build another Baltimore. Questions about hidden perversions are thrown aside as Otakon is not ashamed to flaunt its budding sexuality. A friend told me, “It’s not uncommon to see nipples covered by electrical tape, or side boob, or just full on nudity. People are here to be seen.”
When I arrived to scope out the line on Friday afternoon, I was taken back. The crowd was deep and it stretched down South Howard Street, almost wrapping around the backside of the convention center. As opposed to the largely young, male BronyCon attendees, Otakon was far more eclectic; intricate costumes were the norm. People sported bulky suits of armor, elaborate headdresses, and endless accessories. I hovered by the line, talking with a friend while a man holding a P.A system lectured the crowd about their inevitable descent to hell. The devil, he claimed, was present, waiting for these confused souls to throw away their inhibitions. His speakers were quite loud and attracted a sizeable ire, some people took it upon themselves to stand next to the man and seize, imitating demonic possession, but he remained focused and carried on about eternal damnation and other tired rhetoric. “If you’re here to do God’s work, why don’t you go and help her?” Someone asked, pointing to a forlorn woman holding a cup half filled with silver coins. Like the other voyeurs, the man with the P.A system had come to bear witness to the convention, aspiring to provide a soundtrack of evangelism to the monotony of those waiting in costume, and he elected to do nothing but yammer into his headset.
Otakon came to its natural conclusion on August 10th up and left town, returning to a dormant state until next year. But the much needed injection of surrealism into the Baltimore cityscape, albeit short, has a resonating effect. By simply watching and allowing the nascent community to grow, the city has shown that it is an open place for fans of all kinds and it provides the city with unique flavor that it would otherwise be lacking.
For past What Weekly coverage of Otakon click here.