Walk Through a Silent World

Mimes, statues and clowns: Vienna’s street entertainers fuse art and charm to give a more joyful feel to central parts of the city

On The Town | Mina Nacheva | November 2010

The coins slip between my fingers and clang as they hit the bottom of the metal bucket. I bend down, not looking at the tall person in front of me. Has he noticed? Maybe not. Should I leave more? As I start asking myself questions, a sudden movement draws my attention and a silver rose almost brushes my left cheek. I look up. The man that one could easily take for a statue has now come to life at the sound of the cents falling into his possession. A barely visible bow lets me know he is grateful. And a rose too. But not a single word.

This man who I have named ‘The Sir in Silver,’ is one of the many street entertainers in downtown Vienna. On an improvised pedestal by St. Stephens’ Cathedral, he is a vision for all passersby to stop and watch. And give a little money too. In return they’ll find a moment’s diversion into the world of imagination, and leave in a better mood.

Just like me.

I look up and see him smile at me and I can’t help but smile back. Our eyes lock for a moment, two, three. And then I wonder. Have I seen this smile before? Does he always smile in this very same way? A closer look at his face gives it all away. A mask. It couldn’t have taken me longer to realize it but (of course) I don’t blame it on my eyesight, but on his outstanding disguise.

Covered in silver paint from head to toe, there is not one single spot of skin left showing. His body, his clothes, his everything. A true ‘Sir in Silver’ who with one more bow turns into a statue again. Probably the only still person in the buzzing Viennese crowd.

He and several more.

The area around St. Stephens’ Cathedral, the Graben and along Kärntnerstraße is the home of the buskers, the city entertainers who perform on the streets for tips.

Busking is a tradition, dating back to times when traveling minstrels wandered from town to town not only to entertain, but also to report on events and deliver messages. Even though the origins of street entertainment cannot be pinpointed, historians tend to believe that it has been around for tens of centuries now. Historic records even trace back the creation and development of the act of throwing coins at entertainers, which is assumed to have been the beginning of today’s ‘tipping’ practice.

My walk in the center of Vienna does not begin and end with the ‘The Sir in Silver.’ A glance across the square leads me to another more gruesome character, a hood shadowing his face, a scythe in hand. It’s ‘Death.’ The long black cloak covers his head and drapes down his slim body, he is the ultimate foil of the cheerful silver man.

I shiver.

Street performances are all about bringing pleasure to those who are there to see them; they are about making people’s day a bit sunnier even if Vienna is, as all too often, overcast, windy and rainy. The buskers are there to entertain.

Getting that one tiny spot in the city center to perform, it turns out, requires a lot more than good will and enthusiasm. Entertainment comes with a lot of planning.

Buskers need to apply for a special permit that would allow them to perform at a certain location in the city. According to the official website of the city of Vienna, Kärntnerstraße and Graben Square alone have been divided into six separate zones that serve as places, especially for the musicians among the street entertainers, to play. In order to get a permit for one of these locations, they should not only apply but, if approved, also pay a monthly tax for the particular spot of the street they will be using. This tax is in the amount of €6.54.

For musicians, however, time is also a factor. There is only a four-hour slot when they are allowed to play for the public in the city center – from 17:00 to 21:00.

For other street entertainers, however – mimes, human statues, clowns and acrobats for example – the schedule can be more flexible. Most are allowed to perform in the time slot between 13:00 and 22:00.

And one of the people taking advantage of this is Mr. Mozart. No, not that Mozart…a living one. As I continue my stroll, I see his white-painted face and powdered wig, a strong contrast with his long red coat. He has placed his podium on the south side of the Graben and unlike his colleagues, he has brought some additional enticements – some candy for the little ones. I felt my mouth water.

Why must one grow up?

The strategy works like magic. Whenever a child walked past him, he would take out some candy out of his back pocket and throw it on the ground, so that, in the best case, it would land close to their feet. Once the kid picked it up, he would wave and silently ask the child to approach him and bring it back to him.

But why would he want it back, I wonder? Then I see the smiles and realize how much everyone is enjoying the game.

How wonderful, I think again. All of it. The games, the laughter, the silent language and yet, the understanding. This is central Vienna at its best. I turn to my left and deeply breathe in the cool autumn air. It’s so peaceful, the way I’ve never experienced it before.

One more glance and I leave.

Other articles from this issue