Sunday, February 7, 2010

Ask a Busker: Dealing with the Pooolice

Hey everyone!

I'm on the open road again, heading back to Toronto after a weekend FULL of gigs at Winterlude (c/o The Cowguys. Thanks, Brian!). It's a beautiful sunny day, I've got some Tom Waits on the ol' personal music-machine, and since I've got free wireless on this trip home, I have some time to spent answering another "Ask a Busker" question before I head off to Italy and then Africa (where I will have VERY limited email access). Our question today comes from a magician in Israel, asking about Europe. Which is convenient, since I'm heading into Europe in about 9 days to perform in a country I absolutely love doing shows in, even though I've had some hilarious experiences on the street there. Fortuitous, no?

Dima Zabuta asks, "I'm not a European it [obtaining a permit] a problem? What happens if i get caught without permission (I don't mind a little bit of embarrassment, i DO mine get a fine or kicked out of the country). I saw you were kicked out of Venice, i'm curious to hear more about it."

First of all, thank you, Dima, for your question. I've never been to Israel, and I'd love to one day! Maybe I'll give you a spot on "Ask a Busker" to answer my questions about performing there! :)

I will answer this question two-fold; what the permits are like in Europe, and basic police etiquette in the event you don't have a permit, or the police decide your permit is invalid (which is what happened to me, which you'll read about when I talk about being kicked out of Venice).

Now, let's talk about Europe. While I admit, my experiences busking in Europe have been limited to Austria and Italy (this year I plan on working in other European countries during the summer, so I can make an addenum to this post after touring), Austria seems to be in line with the rest of Western Europe and Italy seems to just do it's own thing. But, it's Italy, my Other Mother Country, so I can relate.

In Salzburg, Austria, I obtained a permit via the Tourism and Information folks who directed me to the proper person to speak to. They were AMAZINGLY efficient and even managed to hook me up with a permit while I was still in Italy. A far cry from the red-tape I had to go through in Venezia. Permits are still granted to inernationals but the regulation is a bit differently structured; instead of a yearly permit, or even monthly permit that EU citizens and residents are invited to obtain, permits for internationals are usually granted for up to maximum of 2 weeks. At 14 € a pop, that can add up, for sure... but don't forget: you're also *making* the Euro, so when you return home it can add up. Truuust me. ;)

Pretty cut-and-dry, right? Yes, you can get a permit if you are an international, but it can get a little pricey.

So if you decide to employ the "it's better to beg forgivness than ask permission" tactic, and you DO get caught, how do you avoid getting a fine?

Well, it can be pretty easy if you're an international. Follow these simple rules and maybe you'll get off without a fine, if the police officer is cool.

1. not talk back
2. Smile a lot and apologize profusely.
3. Suggest that you had *no idea* you needed a permit in the first place.
4. Offer to pack up and move on
5. Ask questions: where CAN I obtain a permit? Where would I be allowed to play?


1. Draw the officer into your show and make fun of him/her.
2. Argue back. Unless you actually have a permit, this will getcha nowhere fast.
3. Refuse to move to "make a statement"
4. Move to another location within the city limits. If you're caught (and most European cities are smaller by comparison to N. American cities), you will likely get fined or arrested.

Now, the "don'ts" I should qualify. I mean this for ONLY when you're in a city with cut-and-dry laws. If you're working in a place that has blurry lines and hazy laws around busking, do whatever you want. In the past, I've been known to argue and draw the cops into my shows to ostracize them if I know they have no legal right to ask me to move on. I don't really encourage this type of behaviour at all, though, and it really only serves to exacerbate the situation. We're trying to be diplomatic so everyone can get what they want in the end, after all! And you attract more flies with honey than vinegar! And sometimes you just HAVE to move on to the next town.

Now for the Venice story. This is a FINE example of why the "Don'ts" don't work. While in Italy, I decided that the best place for a living statue would be, duh, Venice. The home of Carnivale and Commedia! The sinking city! The gondolas and mask-makers needed me, clearly. I did a scope-out visit one day and marveled in the size of the crowds there. It was a goldmine. So, I went to the local Commune to get my license. It was somewhere outside of the St. Marco square, down some sketchy side-street, in a building suffering from severe water-damage. There was nobody on the main-floor; I had to take a REALLY sketchy elevator upstairs to some dusty room with low-lighting, and finally found somebody who could issue a permit. I paid my 14
€, got a permit that asked me to tick-off what kind of act I was. I ticked off "circus show" since that was the closest thing to what I did, and got my permit. The next day, I took my gear into the city, stole a milkcrate (I didn't travel with a pedestal at that point, and I felt bad about stealing. Please don't do that folks. Be a pro and travel with all your gear) and got rained out. The NEXT day, I went with my newly acquired milkcrate and gear and found a great spot in a little piazza. Ten minutes into my show, the military police show up and shut me down. I tell them I have a permit, they tell me I couldn't possibly; living statues had recently been banned from performing due to a problem with foreigners buying masks, posing as statues, and stealing from tourists. I showed them my permit, which they said was invalid. I grew angry since I didn't want to be out my 14€, and asked if I could just do an hour. They told me I couldn't. I grew angrier and more insistent, and we clashed. They accused me of being a 'gypsy', I showed them my passport, they insisted I stole my passport... it got a little hairy, but eventually, I was taken back to the train station and put on the next train out. I went to Verona and worked there instead (which, incidentally, is an AWESOME place to work).

The situation could have been avoided if I just did what they said, but really, if I was issued a permit as a mistake by the commune, the least they could have done was apologize and refund my money. Lesson learned: suck it up and just move along.

So there ya go.

I hope I've answered your questions, Dima, and I hope my readers have enjoyed the story from Venice. I'm excited to be going back to Italy soon and performing in what I've been told is one of the best festivals in the country. I'm bringing a non-statue show. It should be interesting.

Until next time, folks. Stay safe!


  1. 吾錯吾錯...我平時都好鐘意用呢d~而家學多好多~thx+0+........................................

  2. Hey I see you came into Verona once being booted out of Venice. did you get yourself a permit for setting up in verona? if so where?

    I'm a musician and play in a folk duo, actually thinking bout heading out now seeing the sun is shining and playing a bit in the streets but I don't have a permit...

  3. Heya Mark!

    I have worked in Verona a couple of times now. You do have to get a permit from the Commune, but it's super easy and costs about 14 Euros for 2 weeks for internationals.

    If you're an EU citizen, it's cheaper!

  4. Great Venice story!
    My bf is a busker -- opera tenor -- and we are heading to Italy this fall to try things out. Can you provide a list of the best busking spots in Italy? (Venice notwithstanding)