Over the past year, people walking by the triumphal Washington Square Arch in New York City’s Greenwich Village have been stopping, awestruck by a surreal scene. At the corner of the large marble structure, the stony shape of a man that looks as if it is mounted to the façade can be seen stirring to life. Small in stature and perfectly painted to blend into the arch, it is 31-year old Johan Figueroa González, a street performer so good at what he does that he has been dubbed the city’s most realistic living statue.
Having moved to New York from Puerto Rico last year, it hasn’t taken long for Johan to make his mark on the city. Typically wearing a chalky shawl that hoods his head and a grey loin cloth that blends in with his painted skin, he relies on a strict attention to detail in order to conjure up eye-catching performances. “Many living statues are just painting their faces, hands and feet. To create my own trademark, I decided to make a full body painting evoking classical art, such as the roman, Egyptian and Mesopotamian statues. My moves are related to art classes from when I learned to be a model in Puerto Rico. I blend with the arch because it’s a good way to show people the beauty of the city. I can be a complementary element to it, such as a gargoyle, or just a fragile man talking about simple things,” Johan told Lonely Planet Travel News.
While Johan’s outfit and artistic flair enable him to create striking scenes, his unique size is what sets him apart from other living statues. At a height of 4-foot-11, Johan truly looks as if he is a detail that has been carved from stone and placed on the arch. To Johan, injecting his interest in history and art into street performance is an important element of what he does. “I think it’s a privilege of to be part of a monument like that and to be able to incorporate performing elements as visual art, storyteller techniques, fire, acrobatics and poses. Living statues are promoting the contemplation of the urban space. It’s a bridge between the street and the museums and galleries, and it makes me feel unique. A real social worker working from the public space, a kind of therapist. I’m creating a magical experience in the lives of children. No-one is expecting to see a statue climbing that kind of monument. They say, ‘Is he real? Wow. I didn’t realize he was there’,” Johan said.
Over the past year, Johan’s work has allowed him to meet people from all over the world who stop to see him performing. “I have a large collection of coins, notes and letters. People respond in a good way, and they make me feel important in New York City. As a migrant, I feel proud of the impact my performance has had on the collective memory.”