The proliferation of Barcelona’s living statues

Ramblas\' living statues apply their make-up on-site.
Ramblas' living statues apply their make-up on-site.

Adrian has been a living statue on Barcelona’s Ramblas for two years. He was a chef in Romania before, and part owner of a small hotel. But economic opportunities are greater for a statue; or they were, before major changes were instituted about two months ago.

No one needs a permit to be a statue on La Rambla, but there are rules and regulations. The statue must design and make an original costume. And the statue must be still, moving only to reward contributors to the hat.

Living statue: Electric Man used to use pre-existing crowds, collecting coins from diners in Ramblas cafes.
Electric Man used to use pre-existing crowds, collecting coins from diners in Ramblas cafes.

Performance artists are no longer allowed on La Rambla, because they often draw large crowds of spectators. The crowds attract pickpockets. Pickpockets can easily steal from a stationary, distracted victim who expects others to crowd in behind him.

This is a good theory, in general. In practice, many a performer fails to draw a crowd, and quite a number of statues have learned to do so. But there may be something to the new initiative.

It’s not a fair comparison, but I’ll compare anyway. In three days of walking La Rambla last week, Bob and I saw very few “suspects;” i.e., characters we deem worth watching due to suspicious behavior. Quite unlike our previous observations five months ago. See Barcelona Street Crime Today and the articles linked within it. Granted, it was pouring rain two of those days last week. The few brave souls out in the weather wore raincoats or jackets that made pocket access difficult. Anyway, the pickpockets stayed home. Not that rain always stops them! Our third day of tramping the tourist trail was mostly morning hours. This too, is not prime time for thieves.

Living statues. Rain doesn\'t always stop the thieves. There were five, though you can only see two here.
Rain doesn't always stop the thieves. There were five, though you can only see two here.

Even including a few afternoon hours, the avenida was quiet, perp-wise. Sure, the three-shell pea gamers were out, and we saw one pea crew under arrest, waiting for transport. But the population of thieves has moved on. Not far, I’m sure, but off the main drag.

And while the thieves are fewer on La Rambla, the living statues have proliferated. In some prime areas, near mcDonald’s, for example, and at the intersection of Portafarissa, barely six feet separate the statues from one another, six or seven of them in a row.

Living statue Adrian on a smoke break.
Adrian on a smoke break.

While some stand dejected, others have mastered a certain glint in the eye, a beckoning dare: “want to see what I do? Drop in a coin!” The plastic bottle man rarely stands still. The green fairy’s fingers are constantly coaxing passers-by nearer. The black horned creature has enormous curved wings, which he swivels to hide his face from photographers until he gets a coin. The toilet man makes faces. I’m pretty sure that the Michael Jackson statue is the same guy who used to do impressions at the bottom of La Rambla. He used to get huge crowds, and probably pretty good money. Now he stands frozen in costume, bucket begging, but not terribly enticing. His huge talent is wasted here. People walk on by.

Living statue
This creature doesn’t always wait for a coin. It moves, illicitly, startling passers-by in order to attract viewers.

One creature, a strange head resting low in a pile of blue satin, manages to get huge audiences. Like a jack-in-the-box, the head pops out of the fabric with a a growl and a shout, its single hand gesticulating wildly. The crowd screams and backs up, leaving a wide berth around the unpredictable danger. Strange, since it’s fairly obvious that the performance artist is crunched up in a box, non-ambulatory. Anyway, the spectators’ noisy appreciation attracts others to the circle, and the crowd grows.

living statue
A portion of the large crowd around a performance artist pretending to be a statue.
The difference between the large crowd surrounding the head-in-the-box, and the crowd that surrounded the Michael Jackson impersonator, is an important one to the pickpocket. The head-in-the-box has a limited repertoire, and therefor cannot hold a crowd. Michael Jacksonesque performed many songs, holding his audience and giving the pickpockets plenty of time to select a mark and do their dirty work.

People walk right past living statue Michael Jacksonesque, who was previously compelling with music and motion.
People walk right past Michael Jacksonesque, who was previously compelling with music and motion.

Adrian, who stands statue-still then poses for pictures for whatever coin he’s thrown, is in one of those concentrated rows of statues. Beside him is a magician, from Romania, like Adrian. The magician, wearing an ordinary black suit and white shirt, has a bit of a crowd around him. He’s performing with a trick rope, a black-covered book under one arm. He appears nervous, looking up and down the street. When he suspects police are near—perhaps he’s signaled by someone—he steps onto a small, low platform, flips open his book, and stares at it. Poof: a statue.

Adrian’s disgusted by the magician’s cheating way. He empties the small coins from his money-box as he complains about his neighbor. He says the tricks are lousy, just purchased things, performed without soul. Yet the magician gets crowds and Adrian doesn’t. Adrian tips his box and I see that a few one- and two-euro coins are glued to the bottom.

No more Flamenco on La Rambla.
No more Flamenco on La Rambla.
Adrian claims to get eight to 15 euros in his best hours. The magician gets more, he admits, and that makes Adrian mad. Still, he works the hours he wants to work, takes off when it suits him, and is able to send money home to his wife and two daughters.

It’s easy to see that the most interactive statues, those with the best costumes, those whose photos are most sought, make more money than the passive ones. Adrian said the best make 40 to 50 euros in a good hour.

The clowns make even more: 50 to 60 euros per performance for the best one, according to Adrian. Of course they no longer work on La Rambla either.

The city seems to be on to something. Or maybe it’s just a temporary lull. Time will tell. Bob and I will report later.

living statue
Nice costume. Plays by the rules.
living statue
Night shot of the plastic bottle man. I never saw him still.
living statue
Performers draw a crowd, which draws pickpockets. Who’s the thief in this photo from a few years ago? Answer: .kcab sih dniheb gab citsalp a gnidloh s’eH
living statue
Sitting seems like semi-cheating.
living statue
Lovely green face on this little elf, who has an impressive repertoire of finger gestures.
living statue
Toilet man gets a pretty good crowd.
living statue
Performance art? Toilet man attracts a crowd even as he paints his body with a roller.
living statue
Fat lady gets toilet man’s spin-off crowd.
living statue
Enormous wings hide this creature’s face until a coin is dropped.
barcelona la rambla
Then he grabs his victim with claws and makes a face.
living statues
Making up on La Rambla.

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5 Comments

  • The change made to eliminate performers (vs. statues) on Las Ramblas was specifically in order to lessen the pickpockets in that area. The entertainers, like singers, dancers, and magicians, draw a large crowd that stays a long time, and pickpockets prey on the perimeters. Statues get mostly smaller crowds that don’t linger long. But it’s like squeezing a balloon: they just move over a block or two.

    I DO have a few more stories about Barcelona. Coming soon!

  • Bambi, that is really interesting about the permit change. I’m not sure what I think about it. The Michael Jackson impersonator and the footballer were the more entertaining performers.

    Do you think the changes were because of the pickpocket problem? If so would you consider this a sign that BCN police are paying more attention to the seriousness of the issue?

    Can’t wait for more stories from BCN! You must have more?!?

  • Loved the pictures, they reminded us of our last visit to Barcelona. But all these guys were new to us. I wonder what happened to all the previous living statures?

    That was a very clever way to answer your question. Backward writing is much better than up side down.

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