There is a debate going on in San Diego over the rights of street performers to entertain the public and earn a few bucks. The issues that San Diego artists face today are not new. Restrictions on public performances are common in many cities. There is a balance that needs to be reached by police, the city, business owners and performers. And all parties need to be responsible.

I’ve enjoyed a long career as a juggling act, which began with street performing in public venues around the world.

Commentary - in-story logoMy twin brother and I began street performing at an early age. On weekends, we’d perform our juggling and comedy act for hundreds of visitors at the popular Harborplace Pavilion in the heart of Baltimore’s downtown tourist area. We passed the hat for up to four performances a day, earning money to help pay for college. But that didn’t come without paying our dues.

Harborplace, like many other tourist-centric venues, required street performers to apply, audition and get permitted. The competition was intense. There were performers who had been passing the hat for years in the city. But every performer was given a chance to be seen. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it provided for an organized, well thought-out entertainment program.

Washington Square Park is a popular place for tourists in New York City’s Greenwich Village. On fall weekends, the center fountain was turned off – which allowed the best street performers from around the city to perform “in the round” to enormous crowds. This was a first-come, first-served policy. Popular acts like Joey Joey and The Chinaman ruled the spot. As newcomers to the city during our freshmen year at New York University, we tried to break into the ranks. We showed up early – really early. No luck for the juggling twins. First-come, first-served just wasn’t respected. Longevity and seniority ruled that park.

We tried our hand at non-regulated street performing too, and that didn’t work out as well. We set up shop in front of the famous Atlas Statue at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. We drew a crowd so large that people passing by had to step into the street just to continue on their way. Not 15 minutes into our show, two police officers on mounted horses ordered us to stop. As kids, we pushed our luck and continued a bit. There were lots of cheers for us, boos for the cops, and ultimately, an abrupt end to our show.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

I’ve been part of this process in various cities and organizations, and I’ve seen its challenges and benefits. I believe there should be ordinances in place that clearly define the boundaries of what is acceptable by street performers and artists. Street entertainment should be subject to licenses, permits and regulations, just like any other business.

There are several types of street artists, and they all have their own needs and challenges. Musicians normally require an open street corner or extended sidewalk to allow for a small audience. Craft artists who peddle hand-made artistries often can set up shop on any corner. “Statue” artists stand frozen, painted in silver or bronze, on a platform and don’t require much space. Costume actors often stroll the street dressed as popular cartoon characters or movie stars. Our show always required a plaza or amphitheater large enough to accommodate crowds in the hundreds as well as electricity and lights for evening shows.

Requiring permits for each of these types of acts ensures three things. First, it ensures artists are vetted, insured and safe for the general public. Just what San Diego needs – a YouTube video of a juggler on a unicycle crashing into nearby diners.

Second, it ensures the city earns its fair share of income. We can’t tolerate an artist selling arts and crafts on the street corner without a permit. If a nearby store is expected to pay a business license and sales tax on its products, then it’s only fair these artists do the same.

Third, it ensures a higher level of competence and compliance. I’m all for seeing unique street characters in San Diego. I’m the first to stroll through Comic-Chaos each summer and enjoy the sights and sounds. I love every minute of it. At the same time, when every Tom, Dick and Harry is out in costume, without regulation, you could be standing next to a Dick who happens to be a pickpocket – not uncommon in tourist areas.

I’m confident the discussion here in San Diego can lead to a more positive relationship between the city and street performers. But street entertainers need to be managed appropriately so that the San Diego experience is positive for residents and visitors. And just as other localities have discovered, the process of organizing street entertainment can be positive and productive. With input from the American Civil Liberties Union, Las Vegas requires permits and regulates locations along Fremont Street Experience. New York City requires permits and limits performance locations. Pier 39 in San Francisco requires permits and assigns locations via a lottery system.

San Diego should also require permits.

My word of advice to performers: While freedom of speech is always a priority, I hope we can all be responsible citizens and respect our community, our neighbors and our fellow business owners. Our talent is important to the culture and appeal of the destination. With an open mind, constructive dialogue with our city leaders, we can help elevate the street arts in San Diego.

Nick Karvounis is a professional juggler and half of the identical twin comedy act Nick & Alex. He works as a content editor for the San Diego Tourism Authority. Karvounis’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: Arts Entertainment, Opinion, Permits

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    2 comments
    Nick Broad
    Nick Broad

    I agree most with Mr. Karvounis' last paragraph; freedom of speech is a priority; we should be responsible citizens; we should respect our communities; and an open mind with constructive dialogue is absolutely key.


    However, this article has various factual inacurracies in it that I would like to correct, and some opinions that should be explained, before we should accept phrases like "we can't tolerate".


    I would finally like to add that I'm a big fan of Nick's juggling work :)


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    "It ensures artists are vetted, insured and safe for the general public."

    Insurance is only needed for dangerous acts, no? I've not heard of any other public land requiring public liability insurance for a human statue or musician.


    "Second, it ensures the city earns its fair share of income."

    Busker programs are more costly to implement and run than you could morally make from licensing fees for street performers. The city would spend more than it makes.

    http://busk.co/blog/busking-beat/damning-analysis-camden-councils-busking-policy/


    "We can’t tolerate an artist selling arts and crafts on the street corner without a permit. If a nearby store is expected to pay a business license and sales tax on its products, then it’s only fair these artists do the same."

    a) Selling a product and being a street performer are different (although I understand the two are generally being conflated in this fight).

    b) It may be your view that buskers are "running a business", and therefore should be held to the same standards as any corporation, but it's not a view that federal courts share with you.

    http://www.buskersadvocates.org/saalegal.html


    "It ensures a higher level of competence and compliance"

    San Diego's permit isn't about quality. And if it were, it would be even less constitutional.


    "At the same time, when every Tom, Dick and Harry is out in costume, without regulation, you could be standing next to a Dick who happens to be a pickpocket – not uncommon in tourist areas."

    Are you making the case that "unlicensed busking" creates more opportunities for crime than licensed busking? The Met Police spokesperson has said the same on several occasions in London – and we found out they have no evidence for this claim.

    http://busk.co/blog/busking-beat/shoddy-evidence-unlicensed-street-performing/


    "But street entertainers need to be managed appropriately so that the San Diego experience is positive for residents and visitors."

    Places where you don't need a permit, which are still very fun for tourists: Trafalgar Square, New Orleans, Washington Square Park, Asheville... etc etc etc. Appropriate management can quite easily be done by street performers themselves, without the need for permit systems.


    "With input from the American Civil Liberties Union, Las Vegas requires permits and regulates locations along Fremont Street Experience." 

    a) In Las Vegas, the ACLU prevented the Las Vegas ordinance from requiring auditioning or a fee. 

    b) The ACLU has also assertained in court (several times) that permit systems go against the constitution. http://www.buskersadvocates.org/images/SaintLouis/Buskerscomplaint.pdf


    "New York City requires permits and limits performance locations"

    Acutally, NYC's permit system:

    a) only exists in the subway, and is entirely voluntary. You don't need to audition or get a license to perform anywhere in NYC....

    b) ...unless you want amplification in the subway. Obviously the subway is a very dangerous place for public safety, so this kinda makes sense.


    "Pier 39..."

    Both Pier 39 and Harborplace are privately managed land. You're talking about imposing a license on public managed land – there's a very big difference.

    Nick Karvounis
    Nick Karvounis

    @Nick Broad I respect all street performers and thank Nick Broad on his ongoing advocacy of the business. We've connected outside of this forum and have discussed briefly our common interest, history, and passion for street performing. 


    Nick, I appreciate that you offer links to documentation of court cases, etc.  Of course, I am fully aware that some city ordinances have been passed, and although they are local law, that doesn’t mean I agree with them.  My positions are often different than standing law – I have offered my opinion, and not a dissertation of current law. The basis of my opinions is the argument that street performing is a business.  And, the definition of business is “the practice of making one's living by engaging in commerce.”


    Regarding Insurance:  It would be wise for any city to require insurance for any person who “performs” on the street and solicits (directly or indirectly) money in exchange.  The second it becomes a business, it should be regulated like any other business.


    Regarding Income: The original story in Voice of San Diego references street vendors (like selling palm leaf arts) as street performers.  Those types of “performers” (which I disagree with them about – they are vendors, not performers), should be permitted as a business, so that standard sales tax can be collected on sales. The income is not necessarily from the permit, but on sales.


    I agree that street performers are different than vendors and should be permitted differently.  Otherwise, I disagree. A street performer is a business – a sole proprietor earning money from a skill.


    Regarding competence:  A permit system would filter out those who are more competent enough to understand they are a business, and there are rules that need to be followed.


    Regarding licensing: I believe that licensing is a process that decreases chances for crime and fraud.  And vetting performers in costume, who are interacting with the general public, in my opinion, is a better option than no regulation at all.


    I believe that in any city-managed park, the performers should be organized and managed by the city staff, just as food vendors need to be regulated. 


    I agree that NYC Subway is a controlled space and makes sense to regulate.  


    I agree that there is a difference between private venues that are managed and public spaces… but I believe that BOTH need regulation, permits, and licenses.  


    Thanks again Nick for your advocacy and support of the street performer industry.