It must be a miserable way to make a living, especially in the heat of a Spanish summer.
But every day, in Madrid and Barcelona and other Spanish tourist towns, dozens of street artists called estatuas humanas — human statues — dress up in outlandish garb and stand or sit motionless, waiting for curious passers-by to favor their performances with a coin or two.
During a sojourn in Spain last month, I had a chance to study this curious form of European street theater, which, according to Wikipedia, dates back hundreds of years.
“The tableau vivant, or group of living statues, was a regular feature of medieval and Renaissance festivities and pageantry, such as royal entries by rulers into cities,” Wikipedia says.
“Typically a group enacting a scene would be mounted on an elaborate stand decorated to look like a monument, placed on the route of the procession.”
A human statue or two might be seen wherever tourists gather in major cities around the world. But the art seems to flourish in Spain.
In Madrid, in the narrow lanes of the Old Town leading to Plaza Major, can be found a woman daubed from head to toe in mud, sitting motionless like a statue until someone drops a coin into her slotted pot. Then she begins to move in slow, robotic motions.
Standing on a box is a tall man decked out in black leather and denim like a Wild West gunslinger. With the drop of a coin, he reaches for his six-shooter in jerky motions and makes noises like an old clock about to strike the hour.
His nearby companion is a toreador who goes through the motions of fighting an invisible bull.
Along the Paseo del Prado is a white-clad waiter in an awkward pose as if he’s about to fall on his back with a tray of bottles.
The discipline and physical stamina required to hold that pose for any length of time are remarkable, and he and his fellow human statues must have prodigious bladders.
After studying the waiter for several minutes at different angles, I figured that his backside must be resting on a seat concealed in his trousers with a long steel support running the length of his right leg.
One of the more amusing of the street artists, in the square in front of the Royal Palace in Madrid, is a puppeteer concealed in a black box behind a commode. His puppet, a bluish-green rabbit, periodically pops out of the toilet and lets loose with a stream of high-pitched chatter at curious children.
In Barcelona, dozens of human statues ply their trade along Las Ramblas, a tree-lined pedestrian mall that runs from Plaza Catalunya to the waterfront.
There is a Michael Jackson impersonator who will moonwalk at the drop of a coin, various comic book monsters, an angel, a guy who pops out of a coffin, mythical gods and goddesses, a cyclist with a skeleton as a riding companion and a World War I soldier covered with bronze paint to look like a war memorial.
There were so many on Las Ramblas that their novelty soon wore off. I put my camera away.