Since writing my first post about street art, I have become more and more fascinated by the dynamics of street art in Barcelona. The following is the first post in a three-part series  investigating the relationship between street artists, the government, and the regulation of public space in Barcelona. In this post, I focus on the experience of the “Living Statues” of La Rambla.

No visit to Barcelona is complete without “meeting” one of Barcelona’s living statues, the frozen characters who line La Rambla enticing passersby to drop a coin and bring them to life. Some of these statues are fantastical: scaly, winged, horned, grotesque. Some are whimsical and bright. Some recall past ages and distant places, like a statue of Galileu with his telescope. All make their best effort to capture your imagination, your attention, and your coins.

The best artists convince the viewer that their statue is solid, immoveable, and permanent. They give the impression that the have always been there, and always will be. The goal of the artist is to disappear behind the statue; the better the artist, the more invisible he or she becomes. 

Because of this, it is easy to perceive the living statues as an inevitable part of the La Rambla landscape, as stationary in time and place as a their stone and bronze counterparts. But to think this would be a mistake. The living statues of La Ramblas are only as permanent as the artists who bring them to life. And, between changes in governmental policies and the forces of commercialism on La Rambla, these artists find themselves on fragile footing.

CHANGING TIMES

Five years ago, La Rambla was open territory for street performers. Anyone could put together a costume and an act, stake out a corner of La Rambla, and try to gather a crowd. Likewise, it was open season for pickpockets, who preyed on the crowds of distracted tourists who would gather around  But things are different now.

That’s because in 2011, the government of Barcelona implemented strict new policies to regulate the presence and activity of the human statues of La Rambla.

Under these regulations, there are 15 approved locations where the statues may set up their 1-meter wide displays. Each location has a morning shift and an afternoon shift, so there are slots for 30 statues total to work per year. The legal zone was condensed and relocated to the tail end of the Rambla, between the Metro station Drassanes and the Mirador de Colón.

Now, to work as a statue on La Rambla, you have to apply and be accepted for a license. This process involves proving your qualifications and creativity to the Barcelona government.

The steps of this process are explained in Spanish on the Ajuntament de Barcelona Website, here. Here is a summary in English.

First, you have to prove you are qualified:

1.     You must have documentation of citizenship or legal residency

2.     You must have both credentials and experience in the performing or visual arts (So with my B.F.A. in dance, I should be set, but your business degree won’t cut it. Ha!)

3.     You must prove that you are not in debt to the City Council

Second, you have to submit three photographs of your character in full costume and makeup. That means you need to sink some serious time, creativity, and money into designing

Third, you have to write about your character. Rather like writing a personal statement for a college application, you have to justify who your character is, what makes them unique, and ultimately, why the government would want him/her/it on the streets.

Submissions are awarded points for their relationship to creativity, innovation, roots (I am not sure what that means), universality (or that either), and language.

If you make it through all of that, you have a chance at getting one of the 30 authorized slots. So you can now stand sweltering in the blazing heat for hours covered in body paint and a heavy costume so that tourists can point at you and take lots of photos. Oh, and as a thank you, you must pay the government an annual tax for the use of public space.

FOR THE GOVERNMENT

From the perspective of the government, regulating the statues is necessary in order to ensure a minimum of quality and avoid crowds of people that are targets for pickpocketing, according to the government representative cited in this news article from Europa Press.

But, to look at the bigger picture, I think this is part of the city’s larger effort to rebrand its image in order to attract tourism. This is a topic that has continually surfaced as I have been learning about government regulation of public art, and just having conversations with people who have lived here long enough to see the changes.

Apparently, tourism really started booming in 2005 or 2006, and that’s when the government decided it was time to clean up Barcelona. An enormous rebranding of the city began. Part of this effort was instituting something called the “Byelaw on Coexistence,” which as I understand it is largely a system of fines designed to strictly regulate behavior in public spaces. (Unfortunately, the Byelaw on Coexistence is hard for me to understand, because the full text is only available in Catalan). 

So, the dramatic increase in regulation of the statues of Las Ramblas can be seen as an extension of the government’s attempt to burnish Barcelona's image for the sake of tourism.

FOR THE ARTISTS

When the new regulations were imposed, many artists protested against what felt like an arbitrary, unnecessary, and unrealistic imposition on their livelihoods.

As a result of the government's regulations, the number of performance artists who work La Rambla has dramatically decreased (though, one might argue, quality increased). Among the thirty who remain today, many are angry, concerned, or fearful of their futures. Since the laws were passed in 2011, some of the statues have broken their customary silence to speak out against the growing commercialization of La Rambla that threatens their livelihood.

UNA LUCHA DE INTERES

I witnessed one such clash of interests at an event in June called Taste of the Rambla. This four day event was a culinary festival that involved over fifty different restaurants and breweries. Organized by the organization Friends of La Rambla,  and sponsored by corporations including Estrella Damm, Coca-Cola, and Hard Rock Café, this event took place on the Rambla de Santa Monica, the same location where the living statues have been relocated. Effectively, between the four days of the festival and the four days of set-up and tear-down, this festival put the street artists out of work for over a week.

Next to the Drassanes Metro Station, a group of artists who work as statues on La Ramblas had set up their own exhibition, including posters declaring La Rambla “For Sale” and news articles about previous injustices. I stopped and spoke with them for a while. 


The woman I spoke with explained that this event epitomized the threat posed by commercial interests and the tourism industry to their livelihood, and to the “authentic” identity of the Rambla. Between the stricter government regulations and the power of corporate interests, the artists’ voices are barely heard.

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

Will the statues on La Rambla disappear all together, crushed beneath an unstoppable commercialism and an oppressive governmental regime?

My guess is…no. The statues contribute a lot to the city’s eclectic, artsy vibe that makes it such a tourist magnet, and so the government will not want them to disappear altogether. But, it’s equally doubtful that La Rambla will return to being the eclectic free-for-all of the past, the “authentic” Rambla that the artists wish for. It doesn’t fit with the bright and shiny image of Barcelona that the government is moving towards.

What’s needed is a dialogue between the government, the street artists, and the commercial interests behind “Taste of La Rambla.” And this can only happen if the street artists can create a more united front.

This may actually be easier as a result of the stricter regulations. In the past, when there were hundreds of amateur performers roaming the streets, it would have been impossible to track everyone down and ensure that everyone’s voices were represented. But today, with an official roster of 30 registered artists, the boundaries of this group are defined and clear, and thus much simpler to organize.

Also, Barcelona’s recent elections may mean that the artist’s protests will fall on more sympathetic ears. One performer I spoke to at the Taste of La Rambla protest expressed hope that Ada Colau, Barcelona’s newly elected, activista left-wing mayor, will be more open to listen and negotiate than her predecessors.  

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: if the artists of La Rambla want a future as solid as they appear, they will need to make themselves seen and heard. These artists can no longer afford to remain invisible. 

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