Addi Somekh, balloon artist and author of Inflatable Planet, shares his journey to explore life and laughter
Picture a remote Ghanaian village. There’s a simple mud hut supporting a thatched straw roof. Out front stands an elder in a traditional Ghanaian smock. A woman next to him dons a colorful kente cloth dress. They’re adorned with strands of beads and have a stately air about them. However, atop both of their heads rests an elaborate conglomeration of color. Intricate bubbles and loops accompanied by swirls and spirals are piled so high they reach several feet above their heads.
This is what happens when Addi Somekh visits your village.
Inspired by his unique talent and sociological curiosity, Addi set out on a four-year, thirty-five- country trek to bring joy and facilitate fun via balloon art.
The Balloon Guy
Addi’s beginning with balloons is an interesting part of his story. “I learned how to twist when I was 19 when I got a job as a balloon guy in a local restaurant, working for tips. I knew I was good at it right away because it was the first time I was ever good at anything. I instantly made good money, so I kept doing it.”
Although it was making him money, he didn’t quite embrace his new talent as admirable or worthy right away. “The problem was that I was also embarrassed because I thought it was the lamest art form ever – I was definitely a self-hating balloon guy at the beginning.”
Something happened, though, that changed Addi’s mind and his heart toward his newfound talent. It would prove to be the defining moment that altered his future. “One Thanksgiving Day, I was volunteering at a local nursing home, going from room to room, making balloon flowers for people. As I was leaving, one of the nurses told me, ‘You know, for a lot of these people, you just gave them surprise and delight for the last time in their life.’ When she said that, I realized balloons weren’t a silly game, but emotional dynamite.”
Perhaps at that moment, the idea for Inflatable Planet was born. “From that point, I wanted to explore and understand the nature of joy by making balloons for people and seeing what happens next.”
The Journey Begins
Addi set out with photographer Charlie Eckert to capture and chronicle just what happens when you travel around the world, making balloon hats for everyone you meet. Addi’s goal? To use his interactions as a way to learn about human nature in the modern world.
Embarking on such an unusual and epic quest with no real idea of how his balloons would be received took a bit of mental preparation. Addi and Charlie got some advice from a mutual friend. “Charlie and I had a really good friend named Bill Tracey, who was a Vietnam vet. He told us the thing the soldiers would say to each other right before a battle was, ‘Hope for the best, expect the worst; be ready for both.’ So we entered the whole project, each trip, and each day with that philosophy in our heads.”
Expect the Unexpected
As you can imagine, a trip that spans four years and thirty-five countries comes with its share of new experiences. Even though Addi had an idea in mind of how he wanted the journey to go, it was not without its unexpected moments, particularly in the reactions of the people he encountered.
Addi shared one instance that stood out to him as they were sharing balloon hats in a remote part of northern Ghana, Africa. “Some people came and asked me if I was a prophet and if I had come to celebrate Easter. Because the headdress is so important in African culture and the fact that they had never seen colors just being inflated into the air and then twisted into an elaborate crown, their mind genuinely thought something magical and divine was happening.”
Logistics were challenging at times for Addi and Charlie, who were traveling alone without a manager, assistants, or any type of security. They were charged with navigating all aspects of the trip, like procuring lodging, exchanging currency, and figuring out transportation.
“We went to thirty-five countries over four years, from Milwaukee to Mali to Mongolia; every place had its own specific culture, weather, requirements, and challenges. For instance, you can board a train in Berlin at night and wake up in Amsterdam, but you can miss a bus in Africa and wait days for the next one to come.”
Then was the reality of finding opportunities to approach individuals and present them with their custom balloon headwear. Addi explains how they made it work. “Sometimes we would just wander on our own; sometimes we would have to hire a driver and/or a translator. Sometimes we had friends in the area who would take us around. Really, we had to do whatever it took to meet people and have a fun balloon experience with them.”
Have Balloons Will Travel
Addi says one of the best ways to break the ice is with balloons! He likes to encourage travelers who seek to find connections and camaraderie in other countries to try his method. “I always advise that people take a bag of uninflated 11-inch round balloons, preferably the multi-colored round balloons. They are easy to mouth inflate, relatively inexpensive, easy to pack, and you can even stick it in a shirt and use it as a pillow.”
His experience, as told in Inflatable Planet, demonstrates the connective power of balloons and the remarkable interchanges his artworks prompted. He says others can harness the power of balloons too. “If you show up to some place and just give the kids these balloons, it will make them happy and their parents happy, and it makes it easier to facilitate trust.”
Addi believes balloons bring about an understanding between individuals who would otherwise have difficulty communicating. “That is the power of the ephemeral and colorful nature of balloons; it is like a social lubricant that transcends the language barrier and can help people who speak different languages communicate and even laugh.”
Inflatable Planet Lessons and the Future
Addi’s making moves to keep spreading balloon love and hopes to get youth excited about using balloon art to serve their communities. “I have started a college and high school club called the Balloon Art Brigade, where young people learn how to make balloon art and then go volunteer in the community. Right now, it is happening at UC Santa Cruz and a high school in Los Angeles. The goal is to use these two schools as a proof of concept and raise some money to spread it to other schools.”
At the heart of Addi’s balloon mission is a genuine and much-needed acknowledgment of the ties that bind us together as humans. “I think it is both healthy and useful to remember that laughter sounds the same in every language. As different as we all are – different politics and languages and gods and aesthetics – no group of people on the planet doesn’t laugh. It is software that comes already installed in our hard drives when we are born. We all know this to be true, but we forget, so it is good to remind ourselves on a regular basis.”
Inflatable Planet is a stunning visual journey through Addi’s balloon adventure. Experience all the joy and balloon twisting exploits in vivid detail. The stories are heartwarming, and the pictures extraordinary, conveying a sense of humanity and humor that can only be conjured up with, apparently, balloons.
Learn more about Addi by visiting his website and following him on Instagram @inflatableplanet. Explore Inflatable Planet and purchase your own copy. You can see Addi’s work with the Balloon Art Brigade here.