It all started with Chaplin. Not the cinema master but the statue impersonation. His creator, Fran Pinilla, is a Colombian in his mid-40s who migrated to Spain to work as an engineer during the boom years of housing construction. “Street artist” was never in the plans. Today though, along with another 20 different acts in Madrid’s main square of Puerta del Sol, he stands out among the living statues—a large, informal group of performers who impersonate art icons or pop characters and bring their own creations to life.
Fierce competition characterizes the socalled “War of the Cents” among impersonators, with one ruling king: the Mud Motorider. Fran, the brains behind this and the other two most memorable living statues in the city—the Soldiers and the Snowboarder—has earned respect among this creative pocket of the city. But, they insist half-jokingly, they don’t call themselves artists: they are hard workers.
“This is a job,” Fran says. “I apply my design knowledge and my work experience. It is also artistic because I do it for an audience, to produce an impact. But my main interest is to make money.”
It’s a grueling routine to make those euros add up. Seven days a week, most weeks, for a shift that requires at least 12 hours in the street.
“I start every day around 9 a.m. at my storage,” explains Fran, “which I share with the guys who do the Soldiers and the Snowboarder.” After the quick morning walk from his nearby apartment—and amid carefully sourced paints, brushes, props, and other materials that he regularly collects around the city—he works on restoring details for a couple hours. It’s a daily check-up on perfection before heading to the square. If weather allows, he has to be mentally and physically prepared for up to seven hours of stillness. His eyes on the prize, Fran has taught himself to always be ready to hold a pose.
Fran created the design, chose the materials, and eventually contracted a steel workshop to produce the rest of the pieces. The original Motorider required an investment of 600 euros (USD 745) for the bike, wheeled base, magic structure, helmets, clothing, and paint. Fran has since added improvements like boots, which he also altered to make lighter and cheaper. He now wants to enhance the mud colors and fake arm and possibly add lights and smoke.
The specifics of his flotation are part of a secret formula well-preserved by our man—though some of the ingredients can be speculated on. For instance, the motorbike has been hollowed out and altered to make it extremely light; one of the arms, where he lies on the seat, is fake and part of a hidden structure; finally, his floating body seems to be (“must be!”) resting on a strong metal base. This needs maintenance, collaboration from at least two other people, and the sense of ongoing innovation to keep the act fresh.
Live music floats above the throngs of pedestrians ambling through Calle Preciados, the main shopping street in Madrid and one of the busiest in the world. Past the Royal Palace, the Opera House, and Puerta del Sol, hawkers offer items of all shapes and sizes. Spot a circle of people gathered around, staring at some improbably inanimate object, and chances are you will find a living statue. This is Fran’s office.
The practitioners fake steel, stone, or levitation, and the long cast of characters attracts the fascination—and pocket change—of the many tourists and residents crossing the heart of the old capital. Each performer has his or her own routine and style. Frozen most of the time, but able to move in quick bursts, they perform original ideas on statues that have been manufactured in secret home studios from their own designs or with the support of more practiced designers like Fran. Raw materials are very basic: cardboard, foam, theater makeup, and some metal bars.
“The Motorider’s success comes from its set-up,” Fran admits. “The position in which the biker is standing in the air, the feeling of magic, which in reality is based on three tricks that the spectator needs to find out.”
While preparation and practice are paramount to a successful day of silent performing, determining the day’s location is equally key; that’s the reason these moving statues concentrate in this old commercial area. Although other statues usually respect a spot earned over time and friendship, competitors might arrive as early as 7 a.m. to reserve a place in the shade during the busier summer season. Heavy costumes and makeup also make location critical, as does proximity to tolerant police officers, who might help you vacate when the square becomes host to an impromptu demonstration (a legitimate concern in Spain’s turbulent political times). Performers usually stay in the square until 10 p.m.
“Day after day you need to spend many hours, endure physical pain, extreme temperatures.”
Fran’s work demands secrecy, and this requires partnership. Friends help him transport the base to the square and—perhaps more importantly, in an awkward ritual performed beneath a green tarp—helpers cover him theatrically while he preps for the clandestine creativity of the act. He also has a stand-in when he feels indisposed; in training to be the most unique and immobile living statue on the street, his body has paid the price.
“I created the Soldiers first on my own and later with another friend,” Fran recalls, “but I had to stop because you end up posing in a very awkward position, and I injured my back and hip.” He then sold the design to his colleague José, a Portuguese performer who now runs the act together with Camilo, another Colombian. They offer a different performance, one in which the statues interact with the audience, inviting them to pose for a photo.
They’ve both suffered physically, too, though neither would give up this job. “There are not many people who can do this,” Camillo emphasizes. “Many have tried, but day after day you need to spend many hours, endure physical pain, extreme temperatures. It does end up being worthwhile though.”
On a Saturday afternoon, warm sun hits the pavement of Puerta del Sol as Fran prepares for another day at work. He hides a pair of earphones under his mud helmet with a long selection of 80s music to brighten the hours ahead. The plastic curtain covering the Motorider statue reveals an unrecognizable man, floating into the air, covered in fake mud. People gather around, hypnotized. Smiles open wide, and theories about the tricks buzz through the gathered crowd. Phones come out to snap a memory of the silent performance, accompanied by the sound of coins dropping inside the helmet lying on the ground to collect donations, where you can read in capital letters, GRACIAS. Inside, his attention focused on holding his contorted body motionless, Fran silently agrees: thank you.
Becoming a living statue requires discipline and creativity. Here are some tips from a pro:
More tips at msm.ag/livingstatuetips