Strip Mall Hustle and the Other Violin: Sponsoring a Charade

“Only narcissists make art with other people and don’t use their names.”

One day, while walking through a Walmart parking lot, I got scammed. Or I thought I got scammed. 

After pulling my car into a spot, I heard violin music coming from a small patch of shade underneath one of the trees in a mulched median. There, a man was playing an electric violin accompanied by amplified backing music. His family, a woman and two children, was sitting nearby next to a sign that explained their situation. I was really struck by them. The weather was hot that day and it seemed like they could use some cash. I missed seeing buskers, especially during the pandemic—it had been a while since I’d caught live music by chance in a public place. This time felt particularly peculiar, as it was in a Walmart parking lot near a major highway in rural-suburban Pennsylvania. I took a few dollars out of my wallet, thanked him for the music, and went on with my business.

On the way home, I called a friend to see if he knew anyone who supports local music that could help them out. Instead, he told me that this particular person had been making the rounds to parking lots in the area, and that people on social media had been complaining about the guy being a scammer. According to a couple of posts in the town’s community Facebook group, he fakes it—pretending to play the violin along with a recording. Public opinion on this issue is split—some think that it’s a successful hustle, others think it’s flat-out misrepresentation. It turns out that this guy is sort of a parking-lot-hopping temporary local celebrity, both reviled and admired, much like the typical celebrity variety. I wondered if people were reacting to their own versions of what I felt when I saw him “playing.” Like any good con, it gave me something that I didn’t realize I wanted in the moment. I drove back to the parking lot to ask him if he was, in fact, faking it. By the time I got there, he had moved on.

Based on public comments on those social media posts, I narrowed down a few of the locations where he could be. I wanted to talk to him about why he regularly attempts this kind of performance, and I wondered what he would say if I asked to sponsor the scam. I took a chance and went to the other gigantic parking lot in town, at the Target. And there he was. When I approached, I expected to negotiate an interview price with a seasoned con-artist, but that’s not what happened.

In the following text, I’ve removed the names of the Woman and the Man, so that they could remain anonymous while going through the immigration process. They asked me to refer to them as “The Target Family” for the project. We tried to speak to each other in different languages, but ultimately the conversation required translation, and I had more questions than answers. They accepted $100 for a successful day of pretending to perform violin music, gave me permission to print this record of our interaction, and I ended up doing some hustling too.

Mo: Hi, do you mind if I talk to you both for a minute?

Target Family: No, no English.

Mo: Do you remember me from Walmart? (pointing in the direction of the Walmart)

Target Family: Si, si.

Mo: You don’t play the violin, do you? I think I gave you money for doing something you don’t know how to do.

Woman: Parli Italiano?

Mo: Um… very, uh, un piccolo italiano. Me (pointing at myself, then speaking broken Italian)… un artista. Tu (pointing to the man), tu artista. I want to… pagare (pay)?… tu, you, to be an artist. Um, this probably isn’t making sense to you. I don’t remember any of the Italian I learned. And it wasn’t much to begin with. Less than un anno in Firenze.

Man: Ah, Firenze! (gesturing toward them both) Milano.

Woman: We have a phone app.

(We started to use a translation app on a cell phone, and then things started to become more clear. I refer most often to the woman in the following section because although the man also participated in our conversation, he was not the one who spoke into the translation system.)

Mo: Can I pay you for pretending to play the violin? I’d like to talk to you about your story.

Woman: Problem? Is there a problem?

Mo: No, there’s no problem. I’m offering to pay you for this scam.

Woman: We are not ready to tell our story.

Mo: I’ve got $100 to pay you a commission to be a performing artist. To me, this looks like a scam and I want to talk to you about it. Do you know how to play the violin?

Man: No. My son does.

Woman: If you want, we’ll give you your money back.

Mo: I don’t want my money back. I’m interested in why you pretend to play. It’s for an art project. You’d be the artist.

Woman: No, we can’t be part of an art project.

Mo: I wouldn’t have to use your names. I don’t want to get you in trouble.

Woman: Only narcissists make art with other people and don’t use their names.

Mo: That’s fair. We don’t have to do it.

Man: You see, I don’t trust you.

Mo: I understand. I’m an artist, and I’m not trying to steal your story, which is hard to prove to you. I’m not the police though (I point to the paint on my pants and shirt, and they laugh).

Woman: You are an artist? You paint pictures? (she points at the paint on my clothing)

Mo: (also pointing at the paint) I do this to make money (making a sign with my hand that means money), and I also make other art that makes me less money. Maybe I’ll make more with that part one day.

(I reach into my bag to retrieve one of my business cards. I give it to her.)

Woman: How did you find us?

Mo: I looked for you. People have talked about you on Facebook. There were a couple of locations listed—many of them don’t like what you’re doing. I wanted to know more about you, since I gave you money earlier and you took it. I thought there might be more to your story than the fake violin playing.

Woman: We are working with immigration. We use the money to feed the family.

Mo: Are you interested in me paying you to perform?

Woman: We cannot get in trouble with immigration.

Mo: Where did you live before you came to this country?

Woman: Italy. We left there because they treated us badly.

Mo: When did you come here?

Woman: 20 days ago. When we came here they put us to sleep on the floor and our blanket was some aluminum bags.

Mo: Why do you pretend to play the violin?

Woman: For food and to survive.

Mo: Why do you use the violin?

Woman: Our son plays. The police told us children are not allowed to play.

Mo: How did your son learn to play the violin?

Woman: He studied in our country at the music school, but he’s still not so professional. We have had so many problems already.

(They go into their car, retrieve a different violin—this time acoustic—and give it to their son. He plays a song.)

Mo: Wow that’s beautiful! Thank you for playing for me. (I don’t think their son understood this—it didn’t get translated.) In this project, I can pay someone $100 for doing something that could be considered art. I think what you’re doing today is a public performance. You’re compelling people with deception, in order to support your family.

(There is more translation trouble, they tell me they have to leave because the children have not eaten yet. The man goes to put away the violin, and it falls out of the case. The chin rest falls off. I go over to see if I can help fix it.)

Mo: I work with wood; I might be able to figure out how to fix it.

Woman: Oh, you work with wood?

(I sit down on the asphalt, and take a look at the chin rest. I’m able to re-attach it onto the body of the violin.)

Mo: Do you have pliers?

Man: Um (checks in the car), yes, this? (holding up pliers)

Mo: Yes. (I tighten the grips on the chin rest and re-seat the cork padding. It’s functional again, but not perfect, and I suggest a different tool to make it better).

Woman: Thank you! 

Mo: It’s no problem—I thought I’d at least take a look since I’m here.

Woman: For fixing this violin, you can do your project.

Mo: No, I’d still like to pay you for performing!

Woman: No, please, you already gave us money.

Mo: This project is a commission for $100, and I think there is more to your story than people realize when they see you in these parking lots.

Woman: No, no. We cannot take your money. You draw us a picture and we can trade!

Mo: That’s what this money is for! Please take it. It’s a performance that pays. I can still make you a picture though.

Woman: And this is for art? I thought you used paint?

Mo: I work with paint, but also with people. This one is about people.

Woman: Ah.

Mo: Do you still not want me to use your names?

Woman: It’s better not to use names.

Mo: Well, can you give me your phone number and I can stay in touch? If you want me to add your names when you have immigration papers, I can.

Woman: Yes, that’s fine!

Mo: May I take a picture?

Woman: Yes. We’ll use this [acoustic] violin. The other one isn’t good for photos.

Mo: (gesturing) With the building behind you?

Woman: No, no. Something else.

(We find a place that has more sky and less strip mall in the background. They pose together, the man holding the violin as if he’s playing, and the woman next to him. She brushes back her hair and he holds up the violin’s bow. I take several photos. The light is nice—the sun is starting to go down after the hot day, and they’ve spent most of it traveling between large parking lots. They ask me if they can see the photos. I show them, and they ask for one more. I take it, and they approve).

Graphite drawing of Man and Woman by Mo Geiger. They received this image via text message after the interview.

Man: Where will this be [published]?

Mo: In an art magazine.  

Man: Oh, wow, an art magazine! I hope this makes you a lot of money!

Mo: I don’t think this will make me a lot of money, but it made you some money!

(They go to put the violin away)

Mo: (without translation) May I take a photo of the violin? (broken Italian) Um… una fotographia.. ehh… solo violin?

Woman: Ah si. Qui?

Mo: Yes, qui, on the grass is nice.

Their son’s semi-repaired violin, on the grass in a median of the Target parking lot.

Mo: This was so great, I’m happy to know more about you! I hope you can use this money, and that your son can keep playing his instrument.

(I turn off the translation app)

Woman: Thank you! Blessings to you!

Mo: Can I have your telefono numbers so that I can stay in touch?

Woman: Ah si.

(I take an old airport boarding pass out of my bag and ask them to write their phone numbers down. She tries to write with my pen but it’s out of ink, and she retrieves a pencil from the glove box of their car. She hands me the pencil and the paper. I accidentally take both.)

This pencil is the one I accidentally took after our interview. I might never be able to get it back to them.

Mo: I’ll text you (making a hand sign for texting), and you have my card—I gave you my card, carta, right?

Woman: Si. Thank you!

Man: Grazie!

Mo: Molte grazie!

Mo Geiger (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist and graduate student in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. Learn more here. 

The Target Family (they/them) is in the process of immigrating to the United States from Italy. As of May 2021, they are busking somewhere in Pennsylvania. They have chosen to remain anonymous until their paperwork is approved.  

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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