The Many Hats of Ion Bârlădeanu
Ion Bârlădeanu is famous for being a homeless artist who lives in a rubbish tip. Of course, once you get famous for being a homeless artist who lives in a rubbish tip, you get a flat, get a sofa, get a nice hat and you lose your USP. That doesn’t make Ion Bârlădeanu, or Ion B, any less fascinating, though.
In 2007 the European art world discovered the collages Ion had been working on for 20 years, charting the collapse of communism and the disappointments of capitalism. As well as being an inspirational homeless outsider artist, he also got to have lunch with Angelina Jolie once, a fact which has fascinated journalists with a keen eye for ironic juxtaposition ever since. We were more hyped about his stolen hat collection though, so one afternoon, we went to see him at his place in the centre of Bucharest. It was full of suitcases packed with news clippings.
That night we had a couple of beers together, but we all got too drunk and we couldn’t manage a coherent conversation, so the next day we went back for Ion Interview Take Two. Ion greeted us with a beer in his hand.
I was with my friend Stelian and a photographer Tudor. Ion kept calling them Stelian Tănase (a Romanian political analyst, obvs) and Tudor Vladimirescu (an eighteen century Romanian revolutionary, natch). He didn’t feel like giving me a historical surname, but he told me his name is a servant’s name, I think that was meant for me, since Ioana is the feminine version of Ion.
We had a chat.
VICE: When did you have time to get drunk, pops, didn’t you just wake up?
Ion B: Well, I woke up three times last night. I keep going to the Athenaeum, to The Bodega there. I bought a beer, then another one. But I’m quitting and I am a man of my word. I’ve been quitting since last week.
Do you give a lot of interviews?
I don’t wish celebrity to anyone. You have no idea how much this thing hurts. “Money won’t buy you happiness,” as Corina Chiriac (Romanian pop singer from the 80s, as if you didn’t know) said. I’m sick of interviews, I don’t want to do it anymore, but you are quite a likable bunch and it gives me someone to drink with. Plus, after all, I make a living from publicity.
We brought a couple of beers for you.
Merci beaucoup Mademoiselle.
What do people ask you at interviews?
Someone asked me: “Don’t you want to run for President, pops?” I said: “Only if I can be like Hitler”. I don’t like him, but he was somewhat right, you know? He was an atheist too… did you see his paintings? You’ve never seen anything like them! Aside from this they only ask nonsense. I went to Paris once, and everybody asks me about it like I’m the first person to have seen Paris! Young women like to ask me what it was like to meet Angelina Jolie… how she looked… if she was pretty… But I prefer Romanian women. I told them: She’s not that pretty, but she’s an artist, and she is wise, brother! Her tits are a bit fallen and she has tattoos…. Someone even asked me if I felt her cunt!
Did you leave anything for Paris to remember you by?
I stayed at the Romanian Embassy at the Institut Culturel Roumain. The room wasn't very luxurious, but it was clean. I did write “Ion B.” in pen on the door frame. If you ever come with me to Paris, I can house you there, I went there, and now I’m a wicked drunkard.
What can you learn from life that you can’t also learn from a book?
Dostoyevsky said, this was between the wars, that, “Life is not just living, but knowing what you live for.”
And what do you live for?
For this beer, for this cigarette, and for swearing at someone when he pisses me off.
You make collages as well.
Well, when I have the time.
Do you still remember the first time you got really drunk?
Yeah, I do; this is a nice question. No one ever asked me this one before. It’s a funny story, I’ll tell it to you. It was during my term in the army. I was a Major in the military and this redneck motherfucker came to me and showed me a 10 kilo demijohn of rachiu [dur, that’s Romanian brandy]. I was 35 and I hadn’t had a drink before. And man, when I drank that brandy I puked my guts out, excuse me for saying this. I threw up all over the foreman. Thankfully, he forgave me. That was back in the 70s. I wasn’t making any collages back then, I didn’t know how.
How did you have fun?
I didn’t, I was a tramp.
Why are you an atheist?
Yeah, I am, it’s true. I never believed. My folks were also sort of non-believers, but they were stupid, communists. Do you know when communism really existed? In the Stone Age. God is a recent invention. But does he have a wife? Where’s his Goddess? This I ask myself and not many do. But religion is good. I will prove it to you, but I need a cigarette first, you might have to have one as well.
What’s your sign? I’m Aries.
I am Libra. Do you believe in that stuff?
I do. It’s mathematics, science. I don’t like Nostradamus and that Bulgarian woman, though.
Vanga, the old lady?
Yes, that’s her; I thought I was the only smart one here.
What are Aries people like?
Tough. I know a woman Aries who stole a pair of scissors from me a few years ago. This is true. [He gives me a tough pat on the back] Excuse me, I hit you. I rarely beat women. It’s actually the first time I ever hit a woman.
What the hell got into you?
Because I’m nuts, like William Shakespeare.
Can we see your hats?
It’s really crowded here, I won’t show them to you. There’s no time for that, aspeta [Italian], let’s have another cigarette.
Did you see The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, the documentary?
He wasn’t such a bad guy, you see, just an idiot. Ceausescu was Gheorgiu Dej’s pet, the guy who ruled before him. He doesn’t come across as a bad guy in the movie. No, he was a gentleman. But people only realised this after a while. Jean Constantin [a dead Romanian comedian, yeah?] used to be a great actor and I liked that in the end he played in a drama, although he was a comedian all his life. Sergiu Nicolăescu [actor, director, now politician] was really lame. He made history though. When you go by the Casino in Constanța City don’t forget to have a moment of silence for him. That building was bombed by the Americans. That’s where I saw Jean Constantin bare foot. I’m sorry miss; I’m a little drunk. My last wish is to act in a real movie.
Didn’t you want to start a collage school?
Yes, I even had a visit from a liberal gentleman concerning this. I told him: “Mister, in my house there’s no talk about politics”, but I did get my hands dirty occasionally – there were times when I didn’t have any money. He gave me $30. I took it, of course. If I find money on the street I don’t go to the police to declare it.
Ion B finally decides to show us the hats and tells me he hasn't yet seen a woman this passionate about garbage.
Fifteen minutes later though, his morning beer has caught up with him and he asks us to leave so he can go to sleep.
I haven't spoken to Ion B since. I only saw him once while I was riding my bike. He was sitting in the small park near his place, living his life: smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer on a bench, in his own company.
WORDS: IOANA MOLDOVEANU
PHOTOS: TURBO TUDOR
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