Working the Streets: Part One – The Day Job

A copy of the London Times is folded on his lap and he’s at the intersection of Grafton Street and Johnson’s Court Alley, the narrow passage that connects it with South William Street. The sign he leans against advertises affordable antiques in the Collectors’ Haven in the Powerscourt centre. Armando, a Brazilian who came here some months ago to study English now works seven days a week. He will remain in Dublin until December working on his English and holding on to his job. He’s in the middle of a group of signpost holders, all of them Brazilian. I ask him why only he has a stool. He motions to the man beside him with the Jackpot sign, ‘My friend is new.. he has only been working a few days.. We think it is a little too early to ask..’. There is not a trace of resentment in his voice. In fact, he seems to enjoy his work- ‘There is always something different’ he smiles. His friend of the Jackpot sign nods in assent ‘No day is the same’. I ask whether the signs are effective; ‘Oh yes’ he is quick to reply, ‘many people stop and ask us about the shop’.  Armando is one of many whose livelihood exists on the streets of the city centre. What is unusual is that he answers to an employer at all.

Take a walk through town and you will be arrested by a fire-eating juggler or the statue of a golden lady, who disturbs her motionlessness only to execute a graceful twist and present you with a rose. Just try to avoid intruding on the arc of an audience surrounding a charismatic eastern European string quartet or a local guitar duo. We humble pedestrians are the closest these performers get to an employer.

Working independently is something that Marc, a 35-year old silver-painted Parisian artist knows a lot about. When I approach him he is busy thanking a woman profusely for dropping money into his beret. He blows her a kiss. ‘Merci beaucoup’ he calls after her. On the ground beside him is an enormous, multi-coloured, textured collage with reels of photographic film draped over it. ‘I’m a survivor’, he tells me and he has the resumé to back it up. He has ‘done’ London and New York and his next stop is Ontario. He is a little sick of Europe, he tells me but that is not my impression. He has sold 18 paintings in the nine months he has spent in Dublin and he has even sold a painting to Björk. His are the characteristics of every artist before they have achieved their break; the breadth of travel, the creative malleability and the life experience. Behind his silver veneer is an intelligent, chiselled face, confirmed later as I check out his myspace art profile and encounter his face untarnished by the metallic hue he sports on the streets. Art is his life, he says. He doesn’t like galleries, although he admits that perhaps that is because he is not yet a part of one. When I implore him to revisit Ireland he pauses before telling me that there is a chance he will stay as he has a friend who knows ‘a rich man who is interested in new artists.’ He admits that he is looking for a ‘real job’. ‘I am 35’, he tells me ‘and I will do this until I am 40’. I take it that by this he means travelling through the world’s cities and charming its pedestrians with the extremely flamboyant manner that matches his artwork. We are mid conversation when a beautiful Romanian girl of no more than 6 years taps his leg and looks up at him expectantly. He shakes his head with a smile and she continues quickly down the street. ‘Every day she asks me for a lollipop’, he explains. ‘Most days I have one but not today’. He goes on to tell me that he is lucky with his situation here. ‘I pay only €50 a week for a hostel in Upper Gardiner Street, ‘and so I can live from my art’.

As self sufficient as these performers are, each of them works in a non-regulated, open-plan office environment where the maxim location, location, location stands firmer than on any property ladder. Respect is the overarching principle, I am told again and again. For ten years, Duggy, who speaks with a charming English accent and who resembles somewhat Bert the chimney sweep from Mary Poppins, has been deftly twisting balloons into shapes opposite Karen Millen in Grafton Street. He has been there longer than the pole to which he attaches his balloons, he laughs. There is an unofficial code of manners among artists, he tells me, although ‘this’, he says, indicating the hair braiders who have set up right beside him, ‘wouldn’t have happened in the past.’ He talks while twisting me a sword with a heart-shaped handle. Not that he restricts himself to balloon bending though. Having spent time in Italy and Spain, he can cite many factors that affect success on the streets. Working afternoons in the heat is fruitless. Balloon twisting just doesn’t work everywhere. ‘Mime is the international language. It works everywhere’.

Like many artists I have spoken to, Duggy has performed on the streets of Barcelona but he has noticed a change in the city; ‘It has become paranoid’. Packing up after an afternoon of playing guitar, a local busker attributes Barcelona’s loss of appeal to the introduction of licensing. He has spent the last eight years making a living playing music in Dublin. For him, it’s the best place. While Stokholm is ‘okay’, in many cities the people ‘just don’t get the concept of giving money to street musicians’.  

Travel is a dominant feature of the life of every performer that I speak to. As I gaze in awe at the sculpted sand dog that Czech man Libor has created on the pavement in Henry Street, I am preparing to ask him where he learned to sculpt when I am sidetracked by his question ‘Surely you are not Irish?’ I admit that I have a German mother. He smiles ‘Ach, du sprichst Deutsch’. We carry on the conversation in German. He hasn’t spoken it for ten years since he had a Viennese girlfriend. He is, despite his protestations, a fluent speaker. For him, travel is natural. ‘I have no family around me. I have only a father, brother and aunt and they all live in different cities’. He asks me if I study sociology and we wind up discussing my college course and the relative merits of my TSM subjects. He gives me his website address and I see that, among others, he has also sculpted squirrels, lions and crabs.

In case of rain, the internet provides an all-weather platform for performers to promote and share their work. This level of networking leads to easy publicity but also to scrupulous comparisons. A single thread entry evaluating four street acts in Seattle runs to 669 words. Rapid, worldwide communication has made the organisation of events and festivals of street performance feasible. The annual hosting of the world championships of Street performance in Merrion Square in Dublin and the success of the street performers at the Dún Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures is testimony to the fact that the Irish are rightly being credited as a generous, busker-friendly nation. Coins are tossed into music cases and hats with recession-defying casualness. Passers-by smile at the clown that pounds them with his sponge sword and feel for the lady who has spent months learning recorder at the side of the street. Street acts are about more than entertainment; they provide one half of a dialogue of goodwill among strangers. The level of education that many of these performers have achieved is striking and their willingness to share, in sometimes very broken English, their story is humbling. I pass by Armando a few days later. His friend is still standing and they are both smiling. There isn’t a hat at his feet to fill but his contentment is contagious.  

Libor at work on his sculpture

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