Barcelona’s street art scene is one of the many reasons why I love living in this city. I don’t have to pay for a ticket or set aside hours to go to the art gallery. I just walk to my destination and I’ll inadvertently stumble across something. Whether it’s a mural, an advertisement, a phrase painted bold on a wall, or an image covering one of the corrugated shop doors, I love the way street art makes me stop and take notice of my surroundings.
I haven’t done much documentation of street art in Barcelona, but plenty of others have. If you want to see some, check out:
I could say: “Street art brings Barcelona’s streets to life.” But that wouldn’t be strictly true. It’s the street artists that make the art who bring the streets to life. And there are many more kinds of street artists than painters, muralists, and graffiti artists.
I’m talking about the musicians who play in the metro stations, at the base of the steps of the Catedral, and in corners and alleys of the Barri Gotic.
And the famous living statues of Las Ramblas whose costumes and bodies are the art.
And the caricature and cartoon artists who line the Rambla. (Sure, you have to pay to get your caricature done, but anyone can stop and watch).
I’m even talking about the bubble-makers (who I can watch for hours) sculpting enormous bubbles in parks and public squares to the delight of all children in the vicinity.
Street art and street performance is a public good.
Anyone passing by can hear the music, watch the bubble show, or observe the caricature artist at work, free of charge. And, as with all public goods, there are many free riders. But just because they make work free of charge doesn't mean that street performers don't want to turn a profit.
That's why being a street artist is a commercial venture as much as, if not more than, a creative pursuit.
Next to every street performer, even the bubble-blowers, is a hat or an open instrument case. You don’t have to be Picasso or Mozart to be a successful street artist, but you do need to have business savvy: put yourself in the right place at the right time, and know your market. Street performers station themselves in the places where tourists congregate, like La Rambla, the beach of Barceloneta, Plaza Catalunya, and the larger metro stations, because this is the audience most likely to stop and watch or listen, and hopefully, pay.
When you cater to a tourist market, things like artistic integrity and pushing boundaries are not necessarily the name of the game. I could pass an afternoon counting all the watercolor paintings of Sagrada Familia on La Rambla. And when I hear the strains of another American classic rock ballad blasting shrilly from a portable speaker held by a man with a microphone, I run in the other direction.
If I were to put coins in the buckets of every street performer and musician I saw, I would quickly be out of money. As a blonde, solo, young, and female traveler, I already feel like a target for hawkers looking to make a buck off of the tourist. So for a while, I just put my head down and walked past any and all street performers.
But then I had a conversation that challenged me to think about things differently.
I met the caricature artist at a protest. The living statues of La Rambla were demonstrating against an event called Taste of La Rambla, which had displaced them from their working location for fifteen days. (More about this another day).
This man noticed me struggling through the news article posted on the billboard at the demonstration (lots of complex Spanish vocabulary about contracts and petitions) and asked why I was so interested in the demonstration. I told him I was interested in the relationship between artists and the government in Barcelona, and we fell into conversation. (Which is to say, he talked, and I nodded a lot and tried to follow along).
My new friend told me that he used to work the Rambla as a caricature artist. But then, he explained, there was a screening process of all of the Ramblas artists to determine which would be granted (or renewed) permits to work. He went through the application process, but he did not make the cut.
He explained that he was up front about the work that he did, and didn’t try to make it out to be anything more than what it is. But other artists played up their work to a degree that made them appear more credible or skilled, and so the odds were stacked against him. He made a comparison to steroid usage in sports. Now, he has been without work for several months.
According to my friend, it’s easy to take advantage of gullible tourists, make shoddy, inauthentic work, and make good money as a street artist. He calls these people “buscadores,” or treasure hunters, and says he knows many. (I suspect: the bearded man with the stereo in the metro station).
But he also knows artists who take genuine pride in their work. To him, what separates these artists from the buscadores is their intention: though they work to live, like all of us, they also love their work, and do it with a care and attention to detail that distinguishes true artistry.
“If you look carefully, you will be able to tell the difference,” he assured me. I took that as a mandate to walk with eyes and ears open, seeking the authentic, and valuing it when I find it.
I love watching the bubblemaker’s face as he concentrates on sculpting the largest, longest bubble, and the smile when he sees the awe on a young child’s face. To me, and to my friend, this care, attention, and joy in work is artistry.
I don’t want to be another sucker turista losing my money to a buscador. But I do want the individuals who bring beauty, music, life, and a sense of enchantment to the streets and metro stations of Barcelona to be seen and heard, and to have a meal on the table when they go home. We pay taxes to compensate for free riders and to assure that public goods can remain open and free to all. By putting a euro in the cup of the bubble-maker, I can do my small part to keep the streets alive with art for everyone.
For more on the fascinating world of Barcelona street art and the artists who make it, check out this documentary, The Streets Talk. I haven't watched it yet, but it's on the list.