PASS down Paul Street in Cork city on any given day and you might catch sight of a blues singer who is determined to make a life out of busking.
Bam Artist Artiste, as he wants to be known, is the 48-year-old owner of a soulful and textured voice that can often be heard drifting across the bustling street.
He is always seated on a tiny stool, facing a long microphone which he holds and caresses often; Bam likes to bump fists with anyone who tips him or merely nods to his music.
The Jamaican-born artist uses a silver tray to collect the tips: a shiny piece of silverware that wouldn’t be out of place on a Christmas dinner table.
Bam says his tips get stolen out of the silver platter often, and that once a man spat in it while someone else blew his nose and dropped the dirty napkin in there.
“I don’t know what their backstory is — some people act like they’re racist, but they’re angry,” he says.
“A lot of people would like you to say they’re racist, but they’re just angry, a lot of them are not really racist.”
After each song, Bam gets up and takes an elaborate bow, even if no one’s clapping. To a ‘How are you keeping?’ his answer is always a jovial “Mighty, mighty.”
When he finishes the day’s work, Bam leaves his equipment at a nearby pub, The Roundy, where he briefly hangs out after his street gigs.
His audience may not know it, but Bam holds a Masters degree in Civil Engineering, but it was a profession that he says didn’t sit well with the “creative side of things”.
To survive on creativity, however, Bam has to follow unyielding “principles”; he says he needs to be as “disciplined” as if he was the CEO of his own busking company.
“The street is my office,” he says, laughing.
When he recounts his day’s routine, it becomes clear that he is not joking.
From his book-lined room in Galway city, Bam makes it to Cork, four or five times a week because “staying in one town is bad for business, you see”.
“I get up at around four, every single morning, and drink a bottle of water that is next to my bed. I finish it flat out as if the doctor told me, even though I hate it,” he says.
Bam then turns on the kitchen light, preparing coffee, and as he walks back to his room, he can hear the sound of water boiling. By the time he finishes the coffee, it’s almost half past four: time for painting.
Painting is another creative outlet through which the artist earns money.
Bam is a self-taught painter. His work ranges from pencil drawings to oil paintings. In one self-portrait, he has painted his whole face devoid of colours, completely white akin to a ghost, with dark circle-framed sunglasses being the drawing’s only hues.
By 7am, Bam is already on his way to Cork. He avoids the next hour bus because a lot of schoolchildren take it, and the artist finds their loud chatter overwhelming.
“If I miss that bus, I go back home,” he says.
Bam considers Cork city as one of his favourite places to busk. He recounts one story about the effect his singing can have on passers-by.
“One guy came down to me in Cork, and he said that once I was singing a song about moving to the country, and he was thinking about buying a house in the country,” Bam says.
“So, he bought the house after that, and he lives in it now; he handed me a €50.”
Bam, who needs to be frugal to continue to do what he loves, avoids paying himself if a day’s work doesn’t yield a profit.
At nights, he writes down every penny spent, every interaction and every new information absorbed during the day.
“I write down everything, I’m like a scientist, and I’m also the lab rat,” he says with a hint of pride.
He claims to own 4,000 books at home, including “all the books that Charles Dickens has ever written”.
He tells me: “Girl, if a psychologist is asked to read 20 books a year, I have to read seven times more.”
Bam saves money on food by surviving on “organic oats”, which he buys from Tesco “by the kilo for 69 cents that will last me for three months”.
He likes to say that since he often has to pay all of his expense through art, busking can become all about the money, but watching his interactions with people contradicts the claim.
“Will you play me something? I have money,” a young boy asks him.
“Oh, doesn’t matter about the money,” Bam says.
When I question him about the remark, he insists: “Ah, that’s what I tell [the young boy].”
Shortly after, he runs after a man who is walking by with a female companion. The couple appear somewhat irritated at first, but their faces light up when Bam hands them some money.
When Bam gets back to his stool, he explains: “[That guy] was passing me yesterday, and he was in celebration mood, and he gave me some money, so I gave it back to him today, I do it to protect myself.”
“Girl, when you’re on the street, you’re in the gutter, if one of them chooses to go against me, I’m f****d.”
Bam had to go then; Paul Street’s most disciplined busker catches the 5pm bus back to Galway city.