Paint­work: Young Liberi­ans slap on any mes­sage you want

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Stand­ing in swel­ter­ing heat for hours at a time, painted head-to-toe in the col­ors of the tax author­ity, Em­manuel Howard has be­come a fix­ture at traf­fic junc­tions in Liberia's cap­i­tal Mon­rovia. He and dozens of other young men are de­ployed by ad­ver­tis­ing firms as col­or­ful hu­man bill­boards for client rang­ing from govern­ment agen­cies to brides-to-be. Stand­ing stock still on the bustling road­sides, they have be­come street sen­sa­tions. "I feel good be­ing painted be­cause this is what gives me my daily bread. Some of my friends are in the streets steal­ing from oth­ers," says Howard, a 25-year-old "statue".

"I take care of my child with it. I feed and clothe my­self, and I pay my rent," adds fel­low body painter Joseph Yarp­ka­wolo, 27. Body paint­ing as a means of at­tract­ing at­ten­tion in the streets be­gan in the early 1990s with young­sters done up as mas­cots for the na­tional foot­ball team, daubed in the red, white and blue of the Liberian flag. Stand­ing still for ex­tended pe­ri­ods, or walk­ing like ro­bots around the outer edge of the pitch, they gal­va­nized both play­ers and fans. En­trepreneurs like Em­manuel Ben, 26, founder of the Em­manuel Cre­ation body­paint public­ity firm, were barely born at the time, but would grow up see­ing a niche in the mar­ket for a highly-mo­bile way of at­tract­ing cus­tomers.

"DHL, To­tal and the Liberia Rev­enue Agency are among my clients," he told AFP, re­fer­ring to the Ger­man lo­gis­tics firm and the French oil com­pany. Al­most any­one can rent one of these body­paint mod­els, who strike a pose and hold it for long pe­ri­ods on streets still largely free of the com­mer­cial ad­ver­tis­ing that has bloomed in other African cap­i­tals. "Some schools, pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als and small busi­nesses also con­tact us for ad­ver­tise­ments. I go for wed­dings also," Ben told AFP.

The stare fac­tor

One fan of their work is Fa­tu­mata Sa­noe, an 18-year-old stu­dent who ad­mits find­ing it dif­fi­cult to keep from star­ing at these cu­ri­ous hu­man bill­boards. "I look at them ev­ery time they come out. It is re­ally at­trac­tive, and you some­times want to know if they are re­ally hu­man be­cause you don't see any part of them shak­ing," she ex­claimed. "No one can just pass with­out giv­ing them some at­ten­tion," she added, be­fore hur­ry­ing off to class. Liberia has a long his­tory of us­ing body paint for re­li­gious and com­mu­nity rit­u­als, but this is usu­ally done in a more pri­vate set­ting.

More re­cently, the im­age of a man painted white with the words "Kick Ebola out of Liberia" in orange and black em­bla­zoned on his back was widely shared in 2015 as the coun­try cel­e­brated what was then be­lieved to be the end of a deadly epi­demic. Since launch­ing his business in 2013, Ben has built it up to 35 em­ploy­ees and can now charge clients $10 (nine eu­ros) an hour for a five-hour stretch. His work­ers earn $10 a shift.

The body painters tend to be young men un­der 30 with few other op­tions and us­ing their body as a can­vas has be­come a pop­u­lar earner. Le­gions of street chil­dren left be­hind by the hor­rific 1989-2003 war have grown into young adults in Liberia, of­ten with large gaps in their school­ing that lead many to a life of crime in an econ­omy with stub­bornly high un­em­ploy­ment. "The eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try is a dif­fi­cult one. There are no job op­por­tu­ni­ties for us," says Yark­pa­wolo.

"The only prob­lem we face some­times is that stand­ing for hours un­der the sun can give us fever. That's the only risk we have," adds Em­manuel Howard. Their boss at Em­manuel Cre­ation is proud of their work. "You can be in a taxi or walk­ing in the street, you come across my boys and the mes­sage is given. When you see one of my stat­ues you can't just pass, you have to stop a bit and look," Ben told AFP. "When peo­ple come across my stat­ues, they take a photo, what they do next is to post it on the in­ter­net," he said, laud­ing the vi­ral po­ten­tial of his tech­nique. — AFP

'My stat­ues'

Joseph Yark­pa­wolo stands in the swel­ter­ing heat for hours, painted head to toe in the col­ors of the na­tional tax author­ity, at a traf­fic junc­tions in the Liberian cap­i­tal of Mon­rovia. — AFP photos

A man stands in the swel­ter­ing heat for hours, painted head to toe in the col­ors of a fash­ion house, at a traf­fic junc­tions in the Liberian cap­i­tal of Mon­rovia.

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