“Everyone has to get up, poop, drink their coffee, the same shit every day. Why does anyone have motivation? Why does anyone do it? Life is a long slow drain to death. So be different, you’ll make more money. Be different, it’s a little funner. Find a way to look at it so you enjoy it, realizing yourself as a divine being, or a God or Goddess…” – Robert Burck
“My husband is my American dream because he changed my life. He is like an angel for me. He is with me in good and bad moments. There are no men like him anymore, he has a heart of gold. This is what made me fall in love with him.” -Patty, Robert Burck’s wife
The Naked Cowboy Manifesto could potentially solve the riddles of the human condition. It could also mean nothing. Most of us will never know.
Photojournalist Darren Ornitz is one of the few souls who has been given permission to read the diaries of Robert John Burck, the man who has for the past eighteen years spent his days in the center of Times Square, wearing only a cowboy hat and shoes, a pair of underwear, and his guitar.
Most of the world knows the Naked Cowboy as the fun-loving icon beloved by out-of-towners looking for a quintessential New York photo op, but over the past several years, Ornitz has learned he is also a philosopher, one who has spent hours every day for nearly two decades writing down his impressions of humanity and our purpose.
The Naked Cowboy is a simple character created by a complicated man. Burck is married to a Naked Cowgirl named Patty, who is originally from Mexico; he is also a staunch supporter of Donald Trump. He’s a former stripper who thrives on giving joy to strangers and dreams of one day winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Perhaps more surprising than the Naked Cowboy himself is the bond he’s forged with this one photojournalist. Ornitz’s photographs of Robert are a testament to the magic that can happen if we allow ourselves to be just a little more vulnerable. The Naked Cowboy Manifesto, a photo series that shares its name with Robert Burck’s text, can’t help but be political, but it also reveals what is personal and private, the things shared between friends over a bottle of beer on a cool blue night.
Because we couldn’t convince Ornitz to give us a complete copy of the manifesto, we asked him some questions about the work and his enigmatical subject.
“I’ve never felt guilty about anything. I’ve always felt like I could do what I want. I did everything stupid in the world you could possibly do, but I always felt I had a natural right to do whatever I wanted.” – Robert Burck
How did you meet Robert? What was that first conversation like?
“Meeting Burck was one of the more random and unexpected happenings in my life. In 2013, I found myself in Times Square, my least favorite place in New York, after a photo editor I had just met spontaneously asked me to go and find a story there. As I exited the office onto 7th, the self declared ‘Black Naked Cowboy’ caught my eye, but for different reasons than usual. He wasn’t strumming his guitar or slinging women over his shoulder but walking casually down the street in his cowboy outfit, looking like he was done for the day.
“I followed him down into a car garage, past the attendants, into a corner of the garage where three other Naked Cowboys/Cowgirls were hanging out. I had found the Naked Cowboy batcave. Robert Burck, the original Naked Cowboy, appeared from behind his white escalade, and to my surprise, introduced himself in a cheerful and warm way.
“He asked me what he could do for me. I told him I was a photojournalist is search of a good story. I soon found myself on a private boat party with Burck and his wife Patty, also a Naked Cowgirl. Five years later, I have visited his parents in Cincinnati twice, gotten to know his entire family, followed him into Times Square during a blizzard and into one too many random bathrooms throughout the city.”
People approach Robert constantly. How did you gain his trust and such intimate access to his life?
“Whether I’m in New York meeting the Naked Cowboy or in Panama working on a story about gangs, I always approach my stories first and foremost with a sincere interest to connect with, understand, and get to know people. Respecting those who let me into their lives and remaining mindful that the human connection is far more important than any story. In the case of Robert, he’s always striving for publicity and attention, so there wasn’t much convincing for me to do initially, but the more I photographed him, the more we got to know each other and the more he was able to see my good intentions. Trust developed on both sides, to the point where he began inviting me to more private settings, like when I visited his family with him in Cincinnati for Christmas in 2014.”
“I’m the happiest, healthiest, wealthiest, most beautiful man in the world. That’s what I write in my journal more than anything. It’s so deeply in me I have no choice but to be it.” – Robert Burck
“I’ve always wanted to be the sexiest, hottest, baddest. I just do, who doesn’t? Who wants to be unattractive and unappealing?” – Robert Burck
You promised not to share the entire manifesto with anyone, though you have shared a selection of quotes. Why was this important to Robert, and why is it important to you to keep your word?
“To be honest, I am not even so sure it is important to Robert. But when he offered it to me, I promised him I would keep it to myself out of respect for his willingness to share it with me. Anything as personal, revealing, and rich with such a variety of self-reflective quotes could be used with many different intentions.
“You could take selective quotes from it and reflect Robert in literally any possible way, solidifying ‘who he is’ when in fact he, like all of us, he has a complex process of thoughts and emotions and is constantly striving to understand how we relate to ourselves and the world.
“The Manifesto to me represents the full spectrum of human clarity, confusion, and potential, from our most harmful inclinations to our most altruistic and compassionate. It would only make full sense if read by someone within the context of spending time with him and understanding him more fully. I trusted myself to take from it a balanced compilation of quotes that I felt would reflect Robert in a balanced way.”
“I am a red blooded hard core American. I am the epitome of what America stands for. Take your shit and go out there as an entrepreneur and build your whole world around you. I am the American spirit.” – Robert Burck
What is Robert’s personality like? Does he have a sense of humor about what he does and who he is, or is he completely earnest? Both?
“Robert’s personality is very complex and layered! He is certainly a man of extremes. He is one of the more self-indulgent people I know, yet also one of the kindest and empathetic. He can be seemingly ‘tough,’ aggressive- a ‘hardcore American’- yet he is also very gentle, calm, and open. He has strong views about things but is always open to listening and hearing different points of view with the awareness that there is nothing solid about any thoughts or opinion.
“He operates incredibly impulsively, yet he can also be incredibly reflective and mindful. He seems incredibly aware, in tune with some very real aspects of the nature of reality, and also very confused at the same time.
“In terms of what he does, he is both humorous and earnest in different ways. He is serious about the discipline, the hard work, the commitment that it takes, but in terms of the actual character and performing, he can’t take anything seriously. It would defeat the whole purpose and meaning behind what the Naked Cowboy represents to him!
“He told during an interview ‘I took a picture of a guy today in Times Square with a t-shirt that said “I am the Messiah, ask me anything.” I went over to him, gave him a couple of bucks, took a photo with him and said ‘congratulations, welcome aboard.'”
“To be the Naked Cowboy is to be everything in the freakin world.” – Robert Burck
“People come to see me and enjoy me so much. Big, glorious, well built, well structured, gentlemanly and kind, doing everything right. Everyone in the world in their heart believes the same as I do: that they should be able to do everything they want.” – Robert Burck
What’s your personal favorite passage from the Naked Cowboy Manifesto?
“I actually have two. The first is, ‘How much better and more fulfilling will my life be as I spend more and more time thinking of ways to improve and to increase my level of service to humanity?’ Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone reflected on this?
“And the second is “’To me, if you’re waiting for someone like Jesus to come and save you, if you don’t see that the savior is within you, you’re not going to find happiness.’ Regardless of whether he is saying this from a place of intellect or if it’s from experience, to me this is probably one of the most important realizations one can have in life. We think the world is coming at us, we blame, we point fingers, we judge, when in fact it is coming from us, from a mind that is perceiving through its lens, which is fundamentally the same for all of us but clouded for each of us in different ways. Instead of doing the hard work of realizing that the world is a painting of our perception, of understanding our own minds, we externalize everything. From my limited experience at least, realizing the ‘savior is within you’ is the first step to benefiting not only yourself, but everyone.”
“If I had to say one thing that reflects why I do what I do it would be to glorify God which is to glorify myself. If you’re waiting for someone like Jesus to come and save you, if you don’t see that the savior is within you, you’re not going to find happiness.” – Robert Burck
What’s the single most memorable moment you shared with Robert?
“There have been so many, but I’d say the most memorable experience with Robert was spending the few days before Christmas with his family in Cincinnati. Robert, Patty, and their friend Johnny, a homeless man Robert has befriended and taken under his wing, all drove out together. Meeting and getting to know different people from all over, listening to their stories, being allowed to enter into their homes, and getting that intimate excess is the reason I am a documentary photographer. It was a surreal experience.
“I remember going to sleep the first night in the living room, the Christmas tree lights illuminating the cuckoo clock that alerted me every hour to the fact that I was in a new place, thinking ‘how on earth did I end up sleeping on the couch at the Naked Cowboy’s Dad’s house?’ It was a great experience, and I certainly got a lot closer to Robert and his entire family sharing these few days with them.”
“I am most grateful to have a family that truly loves me and hopes only the best for me. A family that inwardly rejoices with my victories and is, in fact, enriched by them.” – Robert Burck
One passage you share from the manifesto reads, “My message is growing exponentially by the millisecond!!!” In one sentence, can you describe what you believe is at the core of Robert’s message?
“That we all have unlimited potential, the power to shape our lives and the lives of those around us through, hard work, discipline, directing our minds towards our goals and riding the waves of life, the ups and downs, without resistance.”
“Donald Trump is a winner. He confirms everything I say every single day. To me, he represents a hard-working guy, ballsy as hell. I love him. He just gets up there, talks and rocks it. Of course he says stupid stuff, but so does everyone. I see him as a winner. We are the same guy, we both want to be the most famous, richest, successful guy in the world and then do good with it. I just think he is just awesome.”
Robert has some strong political options and made a bid for president at one point. Does he discuss his politics often and openly or only when asked?
“Since the first day I met him, he is always discussing his opinions about politics or the state of the world. I have for the most part over the years kept quiet and just listened, but more recently given how the political climate has evolved throughout this current election, I couldn’t stay silent anymore when he asked me about my thoughts on Trump. A lot of the things Robert has told me, the philosophies he reflects on and tries to live his life by, to me at least, often seem to align with a liberal way of thinking, so maybe he is just confused or in denial about his true political identity! Actually, he recently asked me to name any amount to bet on a Trump win, and I felt kinda bad about taking his money, so I suggested only $100.”
“I am most grateful to be the American Icon. Rapidly, I unfold the secrets of super-mega-stardom and its perks and responsibilities.” – Robert Burck
How does Robert’s wife feel about his life’s work? Is she supportive?
“The one thing I regret over the past few years is not getting to know Patty as well as I have Robert. Patty’s story is fascinating, and I have a lot of respect and admiration for her. She is very supportive and works as a Naked Cowgirl as well. Their marriage has it’s challenges like any relationship, and they have much different opinions, especially when it comes to politics, but as she said to me, ‘My husband is my American dream because he changed my life, because he helped me. He is like an angel for me. He is with me in good and bad moments. There are no men like him anymore; he has a heart of gold. This is what made me fall in love with him.’”
“I had never met anyone who didn’t immediately seem like an obstacle to my overall goal which is to glorify God and be the greatest guy in the world, to be rich and famous, to make me happy. By the time I met Patty, I was at that point when I have been successful enough that I didn’t seen marriage as anything but something that could add to my value system.” – Robert Burck
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about Robert?
“Robert comes into contact with millions of people a year, and I’ve heard people call him all sorts of names. I can imagine that not many people have even the slightest idea as to the depth of this man’s thoughts and views, whether they agree with them or not. Nor do most people realize the amount of commitment and mental preparation it takes to sustain the type of career Robert has built for himself and continues to thrive in every day. Whatever judgements you may have of him, how many other characters in Times Square have had even close to the success he has?”
Do you consider Robert a friend? What inspires you about him?
“We certainly have our differences, especially when it comes to politics, and perhaps in the values that drive our ambitions, but I’d definitely consider Robert a friend. For any of us,despite our perceived differences, we can always find ways to relate to each other.
“The friendship/professional line is always tricky to navigate. You are doing a documentary and on one hand trying to just be a witness, but when you spend so much time around someone and around their families, you naturally develop a bond that is separate from any of the work you are doing.
“We get along well, and I care about Robert, about Patty, and their entire family. In terms of what inspires me, I have a lot of respect for his discipline, his commitment to his trade and to making sure he stays consistent with the regimen he has designed and that guarantees the structure for his success. He’s built a successful brand, and the dedication that he has had is something I aspire to having with my own pursuits. He has found a recipe that works for him, and he has stuck with it every single day.”
“You’re going to live the life you create. You live on planet earth, you are a mortal, you’re going to die, you can see it however you want, you can be anyone you want while you’re here, do it.” – Robert Burck
“The NK is Infinite and endless. It’s being down to earth in my underwear, boots, and hat. It’s a funny looking character, it catches you off guard, it’s very innocent… a fun-loving character that comes up in your face…” – Robert Burck
In an interview with you, Robert said “everyone in the world sees themselves in me, what they aspire to be, what they hate in themselves. I’m a mirror for others.” In what ways, if any, has he been a mirror for you?
“Anytime we interact with people, especially in new situations with people who may appear at first glance to be very different than us, it gives us a chance to watch our minds, our judgements, our thoughts and reactions.
“We think we’re different from each other, but when we look closely, you can see that we are all operating under the same fundamental mechanisms of the mind. We can see ourselves in anyone. So in that sense, he is a mirror for me in the same way anyone can be.
“More specifically, I see aspects of myself a lot in Robert, even though our paths are different: that striving to better understand ourselves and the world, the confusion and clarity which can both exist in that process, the self-importance mixing with more compassionate intentions to help others, and the challenge of riding the waves of heaven and hell. We all have our version of the Naked Cowboy, whether we realize it or not.”
“I have a balance between thinking in the clouds and the other extreme, which is being a foot soldier who is willing to work 9-5 all day long just like my Dad, a middle class American.”
All images © Darren Ornitz