They say that as early as the 1930s you could have met made-up oddities on La Rambla entertaining idle passersby. But their true glory was at the end of the 1990s or the beginning of the 2000s when at stopped being just an easy way to earn a penny and became a performance art worthy of its place among the symbols of Barcelona. To learn more about this curious profession Your city spoke to Luis and Josep, or… the Cowboy and Columbus as they are known on the boulevard
16.00 Luis — the Cowboy
It is a bright summer day. La Rambla, or to be precise its widest part, Santa Monica, is buzzing. Tourists tired by the heat are making their way sluggishly towards the sea. The man I have come to spend his working day with is looking in a small mirror and putting on copper coloured make-up with calm, precise movements. His name is Luis, he works as a Cowboy in addition to holding the position of Secretary of the Live Statues Association. My protagonist’s working days look very much alike, as do his tasks: chose a posture, freeze, hear a coin clinking in the box, come to life, spin the lasso above his head, have his picture taken with the passer-by who has paid for the service, and freeze again. He came to Barcelona from Argentina 30 years ago, tried many jobs until finding his place on La Rambla. “In the beginning my characters used to change,” he says, “but then a friend suggested the Cowboy as an image. It came so naturally to me that I haven’t parted with it in nearly 18 years.”
While putting his make-up on, Luis reminisces about the golden era when the activity of street artists was immune to licensing and taxes, one could stand anywhere on La Rambla, and generous tourists would throw heavy 2-euro coins and even notes instead of mere cents. Then everything changed. When tens of statues of Romanian origin occupied La Rambla (creating costumes from scrap, whole families would go out to the boulevard), the authorities decided to start requiring licences. To get one you had to have a degree in art or theatre. In the end they chose 30 people. Well, that was a good thing: they removed all the people who didn’t take their work seriously. But then new problems arose: all the statues were evicted together to Rambla Santa Monica where idlers and passers-by are scarce. “Moreover, how can we earn anything standing five meters from each other?” complains Lius. “Nobody wants to take pictures with all of us at the same time. So in the end only one gets a coin.” He says that tourists used to go to several colleagues of his while walking along La Rambla, and the surprise factor used to be stronger when a figure under a tree would suddenly come to life.
“Moreover, how can we earn anything standing five meters from each other? Nobody wants to take pictures with all of us at the same time”
It’s nearly half past four. The stubborn sun still doesn’t want to hit the horizon, the air gets ever more hot, but Cowboy Luis is impervious. He tells me about the Live Statues Association, created especially to communicate with the local authorities. “No one pays any attention to us anyway. The petitions get accepted and then disappear into the bureaucrats’ desks. I guess we got so much into our characters that they stopped seeing us as humans,” jokes the performer bitterly. “For example, two summers in a row there is a street food festival on La Rambla and we are evicted for two weeks onto La Rambla del Raval, which feels like an insult. The war is never over: we used to fight the Javier Trias government, now we fight Ada Colau (editor’s note — former and current mayors of Barcelona).”
Luis is convinced that street art is not to be restricted. He thinks that Barcelona has always been a nursery of talents, and some of them started right here, on La Rambla. Some artists created professional companies like Tricicle, others went as far as Cirque du Soleil. Why is that? “Because there was freedom of expression and competition!” With a sigh Luis puts on his hat, steps up to the pedestal and freezes, becoming the Cowboy ready to take out his Colt any second. And I go on to meet another famous La Rambla character.
16.30 Columbus — Josep
The working day of Josep Cardona, a native of Barcelona with refined manners and slender features, is coming to an end. He is 62 years old and every day from 10am to 4pm he is Christopher Columbus. This great navigator’s double performs the same unpretentious routine with every tourist: he points with his finger into the distance just like his stone counterpart on the pillar in the Old Port. Tourists readily enter into the game of gazing into the distance as though any second now terra in cognita will show itself. At first Josep wanted to tell fairy-tales on La Rambla, but it turned out that it is prohibited to do so on Barcelona’s most famous boulevard. “Policemen themselves suggested I become a live statue,” confesses the performer. “I could chose between the Predator and Columbus. I didn´t know anything about the Predator so I became Columbus. I created my own costume and image.”
Josep has tried being an interior designer and the owner of a fashion store but he used to lose interest and stop as soon he achieved a certain level. “It was because every time I got bored,” he explains. “I always wanted to do something creative, and here I finally found my vocation. Many think street art is not worthy of being called a permanent job, but I feel differently and my friends and family agree with me.” The Barcelonian Columbus also confesses that, although he spends the day on the same spot, he is never alone — he has to play his role, react to the passers-by. His view of life is optimistic, although he is also discontent with the situation on La Rambla. He invented a nick-name for Santa Monica — a concentration camp for live statues. After moving to this area the relationships between the performers became dreadful: constant rows and even fights for the spots. “Almost no one talks to each other here and we definitely don’t go for a drink after work together,” says Columbus. “The Association is just five out of 30 people, and they do not express the common opinion.” The hopes invested in Ada Colau (the new mayor, known for her left-wing sympathies, who, allegedly, was going to let the statues scatter again along the whole of La Rambla) didn’t materialise. All that was gained was permission to switch places from time to time, to stay in the shade for a while.
“Almost no one talks to each other here and we definitely don’t go for a drink after work together”
The natural question about his earnings makes Josep smile: everyone asks the same thing. “On a good day you could get more then a 100 euros,” — he explains. But straight away he complains about the effect the crisis has had on his finances. “The Russian tourists, for example, used to be happy and never threw less than a euro, but now they tend to look downcast and only give small coins.” I’m interested to know if he ever has a vacation. It turns out that he does, but summer is the busiest season, so the traditional Spanish August vacation is not an option for him. The discoverer of America briefly disappears from La Rambla in winter, but he comes back as soon as the cruise liners start entering the port.
The day is coming to an end and I leave the busy boulevard, where many of us start our acquaintance with the Catalonian capital. But they stay to practice their strange art, despite burning sun or pouring rain, making the passers-by laugh or scream with fright. They are a part of Barcelona’s soul, an expressive reminder that, if this city can make statues come to life, then other miracles are possible as well.