There are a variety of types of busker artists: the street corner portraitists, the caricature artists, the chalk sidewalk artists, the guys making outer space scenes with aerosol spray cans (using the lids to stencil in planets). There are lots of these guys doing the same routine in all the cities around the world.
The sidewalks of Southbank in Melbourne are covered with the chalk of sidewalk artists. “Screevers can sometimes be called artists, sometimes not.” Wrote George Orwell; I re-read part of his book Down and Out in Paris and London to see what has changed in street art since the 1930s. Orwell classifies all street entertainers as “beggars” even the street acrobats. “As the law now stands, if you approach a stranger and ask him for twopence, he can call a policeman and get you seven days for begging. But if you make the air hideous by droning ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee’, or scrawl some chalk daubs on the pavement, or stand about with a tray of matches – in short make a nuisance of yourself – you are held to be following a legitimate trade and not begging.”
There are still the occasional street entertainers who are basically begging, like the guy on Swanston Street with his naïve drawings of buildings, but the majority of buskers and sidewalk artists are proficient and professional. Musicians with paid gigs later in the evening, magnificent chalk drawings (generally copies of old masters) on rolls of heavy paper taped to the sidewalk or little craft stalls full of bicycles made of twisted wire.
Living sculptures as a special type of mime busker artist. Their stiff painted clothes and painted skin. These buskers have been around in since the early 1990s. Maybe Gilbert and George, the living sculptures, and their “Underneath the Arches” performance in 1970, inspired the busker living sculptures (or was it the other way around?). Melbourne and Barcelona have the best living sculptures that I have seen. These artists really put effort into their costume and routine. In other places they are little more than begging with a mask and simple costume.
Living sculptures move in response to a coin being put into their tin. At other times they remain as still as a statue, in this way it has some relation to modelling for an artist. One of the best living sculptures that I have seen is Albert Stone. Albert Stone, as his name suggests, is a Magrittean stone man with platform incorporating roses. The burgundy baroque lady in Melbourne is another living sculpture of exceptional detail. Perth artist Christian de Vietri has created a sculpture based on living sculptures. Her robot sculpture – “Tim” (2006, aluminium) is in GoMA’s collection. Robots are common image for living sculptures especially as they can combine simple light and sound effects in their costume.
Street entertainment is now expected by public, and is licensed, or even funded by local councils. Buskers, sidewalk artists and living sculptures are part of life on Melbourne’s streets; there is more art on the streets than just graffiti. The change in street art may, in part, be due to the romantic focus that George Orwell and other writers placed on them, but there has also been a change in the culture of the street.