I like many things about my new neighbourhood. I’m within spitting distance of Simon Bolivar park, my gym is over the road and there are more bakeries here than one person could ever frequent (Sundays are also crazy; today I was accidentally caught in a Scouts’ treasure hunt and nearly fell victim to an enthusiastic sea of bright blue uniforms)
But one of my favourite things is my new proximity to a hub of Bogotá street performers. Every afternoon I can watch three fire jugglers stand atop one another’s shoulders or see a Pelé-esque youth dribbling a football with his neck. A few days ago I passed a guy with a bicycle balanced on his forehead and stopped short. He looked so familiar. And then I remembered: I interviewed him two years ago, I mean, who could forget a guy who balances a bicycle on his forehead?
Traffic light performers were some of the first Bogotanos to enchant me and the first I interviewed, when I wrote a piece to mark the opening of a film about them in 2010. Lots of locals loathe them (“It’s so disorderly,” one friend told me at the time. “I bet they don’t do that in London.”… “No,” I replied. “They don’t bother with the circus tricks, they’ll just sell you a rose or smear your windscreen instead.”)
Anyway, I remembered the piece and it’s one I’ve yet to share on this blog, so here it is. Maybe you can make up your own mind.
Is it art or not?
JIMMY Monroy gives a huge smile as he catches the brightly-coloured baton for the last time and waves cheekily to the crowd.
His routine might last just 60 seconds, but it will earn him 1,000 pesos – assuming he can collect his tips before the lights change and he loses his audience forever.
The 22-year-old, with his lively brown eyes and dreadlocks tucked neatly into a red bandana, is a proud member of the Traffic Light Society – the performers and tradesmen who earn their living at Bogotá’s busiest red lights.
This wildly disparate group, which places fire eaters, jugglers and acrobats alongside window cleaners, florists and DVD salesmen, were the inspiration for La Sociedad del Semaforo, a gritty Colombian drama.
The film follows a roguish but loveable band of artists and chancers, who work their magic at one of the city’s busiest junctions.
It’s an interesting tale. The main character, Raul, is no hero (he swears, he steals, he sniffs) and the action occasionally descends beyond gritty (think violence, suicide and prostitution) but it is still shot with a warm humour and touching community spirit.
Raul’s home is a shack built meticulously from the rubbish he has scavenged, which leaves you wondering where his other, less creative friends spend the night.
But if the film’s producers are priding themselves on their realism, there are some prospective audience members who certainly won’t be buying a ticket.
“No way,” says Jimmy, carefully placing his batons on the pavement as he waits patiently for the lights to change.
“I’ve heard the film makes people like us look bad and I don’t want that. They are talking about drugs and violence and we don’t want to be stigmatised.
“What we do is art. It has nothing to do with violence.”
Jimmy has performed on Calle 71 # 5 for three months now, practising a difficult Russian juggling trick called Devil Sticks. A friend taught him the skill in a fortnight, he says. One week later Jimmy was working the traffic lights when an impressed driver handed him 20,000 pesos.
Now he works six hours a day, three days a week, while living with his family in Chapinero Alto and finishing his education. He hopes to obtain an apprenticeship.
“I do this because it is an economic help. It’s not my life, but I love it,” he smiles.
“Often people have nothing to give but they still say something good about what I do. Not everyone approves of this work, but people rarely criticise.”
He believes the performers bring art to people who would otherwise sit bored in their cars.
“Even if I’m in a park and I’m just practising, people say something positive to me or they ask me for lessons,” he grins.
“What I do is art and art should be shared.”
La Sociedad del Semaforo shows the traffic light workers in frequent conflict with the police.
Jimmy shakes his head.
“I have some friends who were once told to move on,” he says.
“But the police can pass two or three times a day and say nothing. I don’t think they like what we do, but they aren’t aggressive about it.”
He makes around 40,000 pesos a day but insists this is modest compared to other, more ostentatious, performers who can earn up to 150,000.
Those artists are often reluctant to talk about their earnings, he says, yet they will still share the secrets of their skills with others.
But although the street performers co-operate, they follow a strict code of conduct. The first artist to arrive at a junction ‘owns’ it and has the right to decide who performs, except when a performer uses one set of lights consistently and becomes the ‘permanent owner’ – regardless of when they report for duty.
Jonny Sanchez has worked Bogota’s traffic lights for five years, juggling knives and fire and mastering the art of balancing a bicycle on his head.
The 25-year-old sees the trade as his permanent career.
“I started practising in the park one day and when I looked at the traffic light performers I realised it was a really good way to make money,” he said.
“I work five hours a day, every day. I can earn 60,000 pesos on a good day and 20,000 on a bad one. Once a driver handed me a 50,000 note.”
He is happy because he is “doing what he loves” he says.
“There are some people who don’t understand our art, but the majority of people are good to us,” he confides.
“My family really support what I do.”
Inconveniently for the performers, Bogota’s traffic lights all run on different timers, which means there is a skill to calculating exactly when each light will turn green.
Jimmy leaves just enough time to scamper between the cars for his wages.
“I don’t own a traffic light just yet,” he grins as he counts the coins in his palm.
“But I’m working on it.”