I just had this email exchange with a concerned busker, and thought it might be interesting to other buskers thinking of traveling around the world.

I started busking (juggling, etc.) for the first time this summer in Canada, and will be moving to South Korea in less than a month. I’m bringing my juggling stuff with me and intend to busk in South Korea and perhaps in other parts of Asia.

The question(s): Have you met any Westerners who are performing in the less developed world? If so, I’m wondering what their thoughts would be on the philosophy and ethics of coming from a privileged nation and asking for money from the people in a country that may not have a disposable income? Are they met with hostility, hatred, or just going broke because no one feels compelled to fill their hat?

Great question, one that got us thinking. As far as an answer goes, we’ve met a bunch of Westerners who’ve gone east and make a killing, netting upwards of a thousand US dollars a day (not often, but several times). “As a white or black guy, you’re ten times as cool in Japan as you actually are” we were told by one performer. You have to be careful about local mafia, who probably won’t kill you immediately but might ask for money or ask you to leave a pitch, but that’s not true on the major tourist spots, so you should be fine.

Is it immoral to street perform in the developing world? I guess there’s a few answers to that. First, street performing is a democratic and honest way to make a living: if people don’t enjoy your show, they won’t pay you anything. Second, people always want to be entertained. Perhaps entertaining poorer people is, in fact, more noble than entertaining rich ones. And third, it probably also depends on what you’re doing with the money you make. If you’re netting thousands and spending it only in transnational coffee stores and fast food chains, perhaps you’re exploiting the country itself. But if, as most street performers do, you’re spending what you make in the countries you’re in, you’re hardly imperialistic.

Maybe you can deal with your negative feelings about it by amending your hat speech to be less aggressive, working smaller crowds (to give people a better experience), or even offering your services at one of the many organisations out there who use volunteer buskers to brighten the lives of those with little. Check out SPARK! Circus, for example.

Thank you for such a thoughtful response and I’m sorry it’s taken me almost a month to respond, I’ve been crazy busy packing all my things and I have made it to Korea which is another major adjustment.

I think you are right that busking is an honest and democratic way to make a living and that in the end no one is ever forced to put money into the hat (pushy hat lines or not).

I guess when it come down to it, the “guilt” or “worries” I have stem from being able to make money doing something that I love doing. Juggling hardly feels like work and I would (and do) do it with minimal financial gain. I guess it just feels self indulgent to travel around, have fun doing shows and making people smile and then asking them for money so you can continue travelling and performing while they remain in a tough situation grinding out each days as it comes.

We’ve heard lots of street performers saying that one of their most heartwarming moments is having a homeless person put money in their hat. It’s as good a compliment as you can get. I think for them, as part of the majority of people who can’t afford to pay for a ticket somewhere, being able to enjoy something for what little they can spare means a lot for them. Buskers provide art for the 99%, as people would say nowadays.

Having a homeless person chuck into the hat would be a heartwarming moment I think (though I’ve not experienced it). That really is one of the beauties of busking though: not only reaching people who can’t afford a ticket somewhere else but also reaching people who weren’t planning on seeing something special at that particular moment. A businessperson out for lunch, an elderly couple going for a Sunday walk etc. I think busking in general, wether it’s music, magic or juggling, really does add something remarkable to an otherwise routine and predictable day. There’s nothing better than seeing someone come around a corner to discover your act and hearing them say “Wow, I didn’t think I’d see that today!”

Thanks for your responses and best of luck on the Road!


See Mike’s first juggling video here