Russian artist Sergey Balovin discovered that he could live without money by accident.
When he moved to China in 2010, "I didn't know almost anybody in Shanghai," he told Yahoo! Shine in an email. He speaks mostly Russian, a little English, and no Chinese at all, he explained, and was making good money selling expressionist landscape paintings. When a neighbor agreed to give him her easel in exchange for a hand-drawn portrait, he realized that other people might be wiling to make similar trades.
"I gave the announcement on a Russian Shanghai forum," he said. "I said 'I am ready to draw portraits and exchange them for things useful in my home.' A few weeks later, I had a few dozen of new friends and everything that is necessary for everyday life."
He called it The In-Kind Exchange Project and, aside from raising rent money by holding regular artist open houses and charging an entry fee, he's been bartering art instead of buying necessities for more than two years. A former professor at the Voronezh Teacher’s Training Institute in Russia, Balovin draws the portraits two a time, giving one in trade and keeping the other for his ever-growing "wall of faces." (You can participate in the project by going to balovin.ru.)
In December, Balovin took his way of life to an extreme: He gave up his apartment in Shanghai in order to travel the world, drawing portraits in exchange for everything he needs, from food, clothes, and mobile-phone minutes to a place to stay the night -- proof, he says, that he doesn't need money to survive.
"I go only to the cities where I have been invited by someone," he says. His hosts provide a place to sleep and a way to get to the next invitation on his itinerary, and invites their friends to attend an In Kind Exchange meet-up where they can give Balovin items in exchange for a portrait or two.
"It was very easy to organize in Russia and Ukraine," he said. "I've done around 40 events there already." Fans follow his blog, balovin.livejournal.com/ (it's written in Russian), to find out where he'll be next.
Right now, though, he's in Greece, exploring the country with a friend named Ruslan Ma, who travels around the world with his bike (and blogs about it in Russian). "He invited me to follow him for a month," Balovin told Yahoo! Shine. "He presented me with a bike and now we are crossing Greece where almost nobody knows me. So it's more difficult to organize a big event like I did in Russia or Ukraine."
Ma brought his own money with him -- "He doesn't want to wait for when I manage to get something; he prefers to buy it immediately," Balovin explained. "He pays for me very often because he wants to do it. So I guess at the end he will get around 100 portraits of him. He doesn't mind" -- but Balovin still insists that money isn't really necessary.
"Well I have $100. Some one gave it to me in a pack as a gift," he admitted to Yahoo! Shine via email on Tuesday, as he bicycled through Thessaloniki, Greece. "So I keep it, but still didn't spend it. And there is nothing I need what I can't get in the way of exchange. Everything I need I include in my wish-list and one day I get it."
The items crossed off of his wish list so far include pre-paid credit cards, health insurance, a new MacBook, and airline tickets as well as food and clothing. "I believe one day I'll get a new house or a car," he said. "It's important to talk and think about your wishes and believe it will happen one day. But at the same time I realized I don't need a lot of things -- just food, a place to sleep, and people around. So It's not difficult to get it."
Up next? Italy, or maybe Albania. Balovin says he plans to go to the United States, but still needs to figure out how to get a travel visa and plane tickets. "So I have to wait a little until someone will offer it," he said. "I don't know why, but I'm sure it will happen one day."
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