Benjamin Franklin, Woody Guthrie, the ancient Egyptians, and Louis Armstrong all have something in common. Whether it was poetry, dancing, singing (who would have guessed Benjamin Franklin could carry a tune!), or playing the saxophone on a crowded subway, these historical heroes all participated in busking, or as it’s more commonly known, street performing.
While these performers mastered their skills in cities all across the world, New York City is 2014’s prime destination to either be a performer or just enjoy the show. Since the 1987 creation of the Music Under New York program, buskers in NYC simply have to follow a few rules to keep out of trouble with legal authorities, as busking has been deemed a First Amendment Right.
New York’s most popular musical buskers include a woman known as The Saw Lady, who produces eerie extraterrestrial sounds with a carpenter’s tool and bow, Colin Huggins, who pushes around a 650lb baby grand piano to Washington Square Park each day, and the Boyd Family, who sing a cappella classics in Central Park year-round. Most of these performers use busking as their sole source of income, and believe it or not, it pays the bills.
With the right skill and a willing audience, street performance can be an extremely lucrative profession. In Las Vegas, street impersonators such as Elvis look-a-likes and Gene Simmons wannabes make anywhere from $60,000 to a whopping $200,000 a year. In New York City, street musicians say their wages are constantly fluctuating, but some have made $80,000 a year from spending each day underground with their craft on busy subways.
Of course, busking is not limited to music and impersonation. Street acrobats performing in busy areas such as Union Square are notorious for incorporating break dancing with phenomenal, sometimes nerve-racking tricks, like perfectly executed flips over stunned audience members. Contortionists make onlookers both cringe and gawk in awe at the incomprehensible ways they bend their bones.
Relatively new to the New York busking scene is spray paint art. These artists are gaining notoriety for creating luminous works of art on cardboard, usually in a matter of minutes, by using nothing more than spray paint, scrapers and common objects like newspaper or aluminum cans to manipulate the colors.