The Real Pirates

By Tobias Dohlin

There’s a lot that people think about when they think of New Orleans. Primarily, food and drink come to mind but perhaps nothing is more important to the image and culture of the city than music and art. Despite its prominence, in no city is street performance more persecuted than in New Orleans. Street performance being used as a blanket term to refer to the act of unlicensed sales of art or merchandise as well as performance art such as music. There is a lot of nuance to this often misunderstood concept, and resultantly I will be discussing a number of apropos aspects. However, this profile will focus primarily on the legality of street performance (and the ambiguity therein), particularly in Pirates Alley, an alleyway in downtown New Orleans that has become a sanctum for starving artists who use the street as a vehicle for their livelihood. It serves as an enclave for the eccentrics, bohemians and artists that are themselves a byproduct of the city in the broader cultural sense. All of these are necessary components to touch on in order to properly dissect this fascinating offshoot of the cultural uniqueness of New Orleans.

The gray area surrounding the legality of street performance is a big point of contention among both its supporters and detractors. As an example of the bizarre loopholes surrounding it, in New York City, one’s chosen performance space must be at least 500 feet from schools, churches, hospitals, and courthouses during operating hours, as well as between the hours of 9am and 10pm. More simply put, this means that if you are performing 499 feet away from a church, or performing at 10:01pm, you are liable to be arrested. Most of the artists are not even aware of the fact that they are infringing upon laws, or are unclear on how precise the specifications of the legality of street performing is. As explained by the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO), a non-profit that advocates for the rights of these performers, “New Orleans has a famous and long standing history of street performance.  While at first glance this may seem freewheeling and spontaneous, the laws that govern street performance in New Orleans are actually complex and often misunderstood.  Typically, neither performers nor enforcement agencies have had a full understanding of the law, leading to misunderstandings, incorrectly issued citations, and, often, loss of income for performers.” 

I spoke with Paul Athol Lewis, a travelling artist originally from Cincinnati, who came to New Orleans for the culture and artistic prominence and now calls Pirate’s Alley his place of employment. Although I set out to find someone to discuss street performance with, what initially caught my eye was his incredible artwork. He creates beautiful abstract and impressionist works, often depicting black women using a variety of mediums, from a plank of wood painted white as a canvas, to a dollar store ballpoint pen as a paintbrush. Not only did I find that this innovation and versatility gave his pieces immense amounts of character, they were also emblematic of the circumstances in which he paints and sells them: a take what you can get mentality. It was through his art that I was initially drawn to him, and it was through his art that I realized he was exactly the person I was supposed to be talking to. 

When I asked Mr. Lewis if he had ever experienced harassment for selling without proper liscensure, he laughed, as though the question was rhetorical. “Damn near every week.” He was surprisingly articulate, although in retrospect, it was in all likelihood just my subconscious biases at play that made it surprising. “I deal with ‘em, but I don’t get it bad because I sell my shit quiet as kept. You’d be hard-pressed to find folks that deal with more unreasonable legal bullshit than those folks over there.” He gestured to a disheveled man strumming on an acoustic guitar. He told me that most of the ‘residents’ of Pirate’s Alley were subject to police scrutiny and many of them, mainly the musicians and performance artists, take their vocation nomadic as a result, some of them traversing from Pirate’s Alley to Bourbon St to Frenchman St to the steps of Washington Artillery Park and back again, just to put bread on the table free from persecution. 

Wondering what was being done to help this unjust treatment of local artists beyond non-profit work like MaCCNO, but on an actual legislative level, I began doing research and found that in January 2014, the City Council of New Orleans shelved an update to the city’s outdated noise ordinance, in part, because it didn’t consult with community stakeholders about items like lowering the maximum decibel levels at different times of the day. In April, a new draft — one that included a welcomed elimination of a dated, unenforceable curfew on street musicians — also failed to pass. 

I asked Mr. Lewis if he had any ideas that would help to remedy the issue. “Listen, man. I ain’t no politician but I don’t think it’s crazy to think that there should be more respect given to us as artists. I mean, at the end of the day, people come to New Orleans to see shit like this; people like this. We’re a big part of what gives this city its swagger. And as a result we get stepped on and harrassed by the law? It ain’t right, man.”

In truth, it’s impossible to give this issue of street performance a fair shake without also offering some validity to the perspectives of its detractors. To some degree, the people who abide by these lifestyles create a polarizing atmosphere and can, especially for locals, create and foster an atmosphere of noise pollution. Nevertheless, without succinct parameters surrounding the act, the loopholes and ambiguity of the crime will continue to produce an inequitable environment for the artists that give the city of New Orleans its unique flavor. 

Ultimately, the street performers of New Orleans are imperative to the atmosphere of the city. When I think of Bourbon Street, I think of people covered in gold paint, refusing to break their statuesque stillness until they get a tip. I think of little kids relentlessly pounding on buckets with drumsticks. These people are not just an offshoot of the culture, they are the culture. Of course, like all things public and for profit, there needs to be some regulation intact. But there also needs to be precise parameters so these artists are not unknowingly violating rules put in place, and moreover there needs to be due respect given to these people, like Mr. Lewis, who are essential to instilling the beauty into this city that we love.

Pull Quote 1: “New Orleans has a famous and long standing history of street performance.  While at first glance this may seem freewheeling and spontaneous, the laws that govern street performance in New Orleans are actually complex and often misunderstood.  Typically, neither performers nor enforcement agencies have had a full understanding of the law, leading to misunderstandings, incorrectly issued citations, and, often, loss of income for performers.” 

Pull Quote 2: “Damn near every week. I deal with ‘em, but I don’t get it bad because I sell my shit quiet as kept. You’d be hard-pressed to find folks that deal with more unreasonable legal bullshit than those folks over there.”

Pull Quote 3: “Listen, man. I ain’t no politician but I don’t think it’s crazy to think that there should be more respect given to us as artists. I mean, at the end of the day, people come to New Orleans to see shit like this; people like this. We’re a big part of what gives this city its swagger. And as a result we get stepped on and harrassed by the law? It ain’t right, man.”

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s