Buskers seek space as street art booms

SPACE INVADERS::Street artists say a faulty licensing system and a rise in numbers are making it hard for them to ply their trade as competition for prime spots grows

Staff writer, with CNA

Wed, Dec 12, 2012 - Page 5

As more and more people join the ranks of street performers, the growing number of buskers in the limited space of urban areas has given rise to intense competition for lucrative performance spots.

Some city and county governments are considering reducing the amount of busking permits that they grant to curb the rapid increase in the number of street performers and are also striving to build a better licensing and management system.

The Taipei City Government has so far issued 1,109 busking licenses and certified 72 locations as venues for street performances.

It holds license auditions twice a year — in May and November — that are highly publicized, including press briefings about the performers who pass the auditions.

However, buskers have complained that the city government has not made any serious efforts to resolve various busking issues.

Street performer Hsiao Chen said one issue was the varying skill levels of the different types of street artists in Taipei.

“For example, there are many street portraitists who are not good artists. The government should help them hone their skills because tourists might otherwise think that our buskers are not very competent, which would reflect badly on the nation,” he said.

Another busker, Ha Shi-chi, said another issue was that some foreign street performers were unaware of regulations that require buskers to draw lots to determine where they can perform.

“Some of them speak Mandarin, but tend to revert to English if police arrive,” he added.

Several of Taipei’s buskers have also complained that they have not been allowed to perform in other cities or counties despite being licensed in the capital.

“This restriction arises because busking permits are not professional licenses, but rather a permission to perform at a specific location,” a city official said.

The official added that local governments tend to emphasize different things in their cultural policies. For instance, Taipei gives priority to innovation and diversity, while Greater Tainan places more emphasis on preserving traditional arts.

As a consequence, local governments have different sets of principles for issuing street performance permits, the official said.

In New Taipei City (新北市), competition for performance spots is made all the more intense because of the large amount of money buskers can earn in prime locations.

New Taipei City officials said the Danshui MRT Station and Tamsui Golden Bank are the two most coveted locations.

Each morning, buskers draw lots to determine which of the 82 locations designated for street performances they will use.

There have been reports of some buskers swapping locations in private — a move that has sparked controversy although city officials say there are no regulations that prevent this practice.

Sources familiar with the issue say buskers can collect NT$10,000 or even NT$20,000 a day if they perform at a location that attracts large crowds, while those at less busy locations might earn just NT$300 or NT$500 a day. Because of this, there are frequent reports from around the city of the more established buskers bullying the newer ones, the sources said.

In Keelung, buskers can only perform between May and October because it rains so often during the other months.

Although there are 37 locations designated in Keelung for street performances, most of them are either privately owned or controlled by other government agencies. As a result, buskers are often chased away by the authorities.

Due to its relatively small population, many Keelung buskers have been forced to leave their hometown and seek permits in Taipei or New Taipei City.

By comparison, Yilan County is more friendly toward buskers.

Hu Ming-jui, head of the fire dancing group Scream, which was founded in May 2010 and obtained a busking permit from the Yilan County Government last year, said Yilan has many locations suitable for street performances.

“But there are relatively few buskers performing here,” Hu said.

Since the county’s Luodong (羅東) night market attracts a lot of tourists, Hu’s group decided to apply for a permit to perform a fire dancing show, he said.

Fire dancing is not allowed in major cities such as Taipei and Greater Taichung, but “the Luodong Township Office approved the application after confirming that we would follow strict safety regulations. It also informed the township’s fire department of our plan,” Hu said.

It can take a long time for some local governments to approve street performance applications, but Luodong Township officials approved Scream’s application quickly, Hu said.

“They were very friendly and even came to watch our show. We felt very honored,” he added.

Shanny, a Canadian member of the troupe who has been in Taiwan for four years and lives in Yilan’s Waiao (外澳), said contrary to common belief, fire dancing is not dangerous because to perform at all one must be very skilful.