The Delightful Psychology of Why We Love Those Air Dancer Tube Guys

Tube men, fly guys, air dancers — call them what you will. These wacky waving friends are the new subject of a campaign to replace racist statues.

Upwards of 30 racist monuments and statues have been leveled by protesters, vandalized or slated for removal by officials since Black Lives Matter protests have broken out throughout the country in recent weeks. In their wake are numerous vacant pedestals that could be replaced with sculptures of civil rights leaders, victims of police violence or even the fucking Mothman.

But until that happens, 28-year-old Jack Cotaling took to Twitter to make a temporary suggestion: Replace them with the Air Dancers that billow from the parking lots of used car dealerships — a much sillier symbol of resilience. “I didn’t know they were called Air Dancers,” he tells me. “I literally Googled ‘wavy used car lot guy,’ and the term Air Dancers came up,” Cotaling tells me. “People have been correcting me that the proper term is ‘wacky wavy inflatable arm flailing tube man.’ Who knew?”

Oddly enough, disputes about the name of these majestic air sausages date back to their tubular inception at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The way the story unfolds, according to multiple accounts, is that the opening ceremonies were designed by Trinidadian artist Peter Minshall, which included his vision for what he called “Tall Boys.” Israeli designer and artist Doron Gazit, who had created inflatable sculptures for the 1984 Olympics in L.A., was hired to execute Minshall’s vision, but he opted to call them “Fly Guys” instead.

Competitors emerged, like Tubeworks, founded by a former aerospace technology salesman by the name of Drake Diamond who tinkered with inflatable designs in his garage for his wife’s balloon shop. As such, Diamond and Gazit collaborated on two-legged tube men for the finale of the 1998 Super Bowl halftime show. From there, in 2001, Gazit’s patent application for “Apparatus and Method for Providing Inflated Undulating Figures” was approved — a move Minshall has publicly opposed, since he invented them. The thing is, the patent only applies to inflatable figures with two legs, opening the door for the single-torsoed kings to proliferate, unencumbered by licensing fees and legal repercussions. 

And proliferate they did. By 2010, Houston, Dallas, St. Louis and many other local municipalities started banning Tube Men for being a general eye sore, causing a decline in sales (and forcing a change of venue to farms?). But thanks to Cotaling’s now viral suggestion, these airheads are ready for a monumental comeback. 

They’re great for all occasions, too, says my colleague Brian VanHooker, who loves Air Dancers so much he bought his wife a miniature one for Valentine’s Day last year. “She loves them,” he tells me. “I also had no idea what they’re called, which is why we just started calling them ‘Mommy’s Friend.’” 

“He’s just excited about everything and is super optimistic,” VanHooker continues. “Overall, they’re excited about everything from bullshit car sales to haircuts. I even saw one for Verizon. Verizon! Despite being physically inseparable from an industrial-size fan, he’s super free and loves to dance. He represents what we all wish we could be.”

Cotaling suspects that this is exactly why his tweet blew up. “There have been a lot of people saying that they love Air Dancers,” he explains. “They think the pictures are funny, and in the wake of all the horrible things going on right now, it made them smile.” 

Stephanie Ratanas, a writer and coder in Minneapolis who was recently tear-gassed on a walk with her girlfriend, agrees. After the rioting in her neighborhood — during which a building was burned and looted (by three white teenagers from the suburbs) — she thinks Air Dancers could be beautiful hype men right now. “They put a lot of passion into their particular form of dance,” she tells me. “Using the whole body, they represent the fall, rise and celebration of what it is to be alive today. Also, they’re super smiley, which is charming.” Not to mention, she adds, “They make me want to try their dance when I see them out in the world.”

Sure, it’s very, very, very low on the list of priorities, but while we’re defunding the police, combating racism and generally dismantling and rebuilding the system, maybe we can decriminalize these Tall Boys/Fly Guys/Tube Men/Air Dancers, too. They might just be the wiggly torso of fresh air America needs.