My life as a professional spray paint artist began at
the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Oktoberfest, a festival less devoted to
the fine arts than to German beer (which I like), all kinds of wurst
(which I like but don't trust) and the chicken dance (which I like
unless I hear it 18,000 times over the course of two weekends).
The festival started one autumn Friday eve at six. I
showed up at three, dragging a footlocker full of supplies as well as a
beach umbrella to protect me from sun, rain and sour kraut. The woman
in charge of vending said that if I wanted a booth, I should have
applied months earlier. I told her that I had no booth, just an
umbrella. She sighed, smiled and let me set up next to a Peruvian
couple who sold cheap jewelry and hash pipes.
The Peruvians were very impressed with my work, in part
because it seemed to transfix their two young children, who otherwise
would have been running all over the grounds exposing themselves to
various dangers including, but not limited to, half-cooked bratwurst
and drunken German chicken dancers. It was much better for them to sit
by me, watch wondrous works of art take form and inhale spray paint
vapor, which has a discernibly pacifying effect after a while.
My expertise lies somewhere betwixt art
and craft. Using dog food and
coffee cans, pot lids and pans, a full spectrum of Krylon spray paint
and an OSHA-approved gas mask, in front of your very eyes, I turn
sheets of poster paper into scenes of planets, stars, nebulae, comets
and an occasional super nova. It's a performance art, the
landscapes” taking just five or ten minutes, depending on
Over two weekends of fair weather at the Oktoberfest, I
grossed about $800. Subtracting my expenses: vending
“booth” fee ($165), paint and poster paper ($10)
beer ($82.75), I still managed to clear enough money to try this art
festival thing again.
My Peruvian neighbors said that they
were going to Palm Beach's
Centennial Festival next and would lend me their spare canopy. Great.
Once again the weather was fair, the crowds hefty and cosmic landscapes
popular. I cut down on expenses by bringing a cooler with my own beer
and cleared about $900 in one weekend.
I was really impressed. Here I was, a guy who can't draw
a dog that doesn't look as much like a horse or cow as a dog, making
wads of cash by painting. Here I was, a guy who normally shies away
from the limelight standing before dozens of people at a time,
performing five- or ten-minute shows and bowing to applause after
scratching my nom-de-spray-paint, g.HARLAN, into the corner of my
poster paper canvas.
I liked this art festival business. It sure as heck beat
working. Except that this time, I had a canopy to raise, wire dividers
to set up, a gallery of pictures to hang and tables, chairs and a beer
cooler to lug around. And I had to awaken at dawn to get to the
festival grounds to set up, which was way too workmanlike.
The veteran vagabond artists and craftsmen at the
Centennial Festival nodded in approval at me. From the Chinese
water-colorist to the guy who makes Mr. Potato Head-type sculptures out
of coconuts, they all said I'd go a long way. And the papier-mache
vegetable vendor, who said he had a PhD in something, proclaimed me a
natural who could clear an easy fifty grand a year once I refined my
booth and bumped my prices. I got serious. I bought a used canopy to
call my own, traded for a banner and worked for weeks to build up my
stock, some of which I paid good money to frame.
I finagled my way into Fort Lauderdale's prestigious
Promenade in the Park as an “exhibition artist” and
told to set up any place where wafting clouds of spray paint wouldn't
bother the fine art lovers.
I found a wonderful spot along an empty stretch between
the funnel cake stand and the pig run, both of which attract the kind
of art connoisseurs who most appreciate my stuff. I was set to break
all records, to have a $1,000 weekend. Nothing could stop me!
Except maybe a little rain. Friday night, it drizzled on
and off. Business was slow. Saturday was a monsoon. Business stopped.
My new used tent leaked worse than a generic diaper. The Promenade in
the Park turned into the Promenade in the Lake, and I never made it to
Sunday. My career as a professional vagabond artist got pretty sketchy
after that. Truth is, it's not the kind of thing you can do half-assed.
Besides needing a reliable tent and assorted other gear, you have to
plan ahead, researching and applying for festivals months in advance
and always hoping that it doesn't rain.
Planning ahead has never been my forte. And with a wife
and child to support, I couldn't see having to depend on the weather to
make money, or for that matter, spending even clear weekends enveloped
in clouds of Krylon spray paint. But I still performed on occasion: a
sunset art show on Miami Beach, a couple of church fairs and on the
I worked the Oktoberfest in following years, but it was
never as good as the first. I’d still love to work another
Beach Centennial Festival, but the next one isn’t till 2094.
last event I worked was an Irish Festival, where the weather was clear
but blustery. My latest canopy broke its legs in gale force winds, but
I at least managed to make enough money to cover my Guinness tab at the
Now, I paint in my own back yard. And as my days of
being a vagabond artist drift further and further into the past, they
seem more and more idyllic. The hard work, long hours and Krylon vapors
fade away and all that’s left are rosy memories of smiling
watching you turn arts and crafts into a show, watching you magically
transform spray paint and posterboard into wads of unreported income,
watching you create new worlds in seconds and entire solar systems in
minutes, watching you become the master of countless universes.
I really miss most about being a vagabond artist is
the people I encountered, all wandering around in their own orbits. In
each passing face there is a universe of mystery and wonderment, a
slice of life that might just dock in your sphere for a spell and share
a piece of the human experience, which is really what art is all about.
Catch a ride on the flying saucer back
to the Outer Space Art Gallery homepage