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Sergey Balovin is travelling the world offering portraits 'in kind exchange' for board and lodging, living cash free. Tiffany Ap catches up with him on Skype

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 2014, 3:53pm

Travelling the world on a shoestring budget is a rite of passage for many twenty-somethings but one Russian artist is taking that concept to another level by trotting around the globe with no money at all.

It sounds incredible but 28-year-old Sergey Balovin has been living money free for three years. In lieu of currency, he created a barter system, or "in kind exchange" as he calls it, in which he paints portraits in exchange for whatever people are willing to give him.

The project was not conceived as a statement but sprung up out of practical reasons when Sergey lived in Shanghai. Arriving with no money to an empty apartment in 2009, Balovin posted an ad on the internet offering to paint portraits in exchange for food and other essentials. It wasn't long before the offers of fruits, furniture, tickets and appliances came streaming in.

"I started just for fun and then I realised it could be a serious project," Balovin says via Skype from Switzerland.

To date, more than 3,000 people have taken part in this exchange project and Balovin now devotes himself to living cash-free.

On February 1, he took his idea of bartering one step further by embarking on an around-the-world trek completely cashless. The gist is simple: he goes wherever people invite him and offer him a ticket and a place to sleep (invitations can be sent via his website He started his journey from his hometown of Voronezh, Russia, a city south of Moscow and, five months in, has made about 20 pit stops taking him to the Ukraine, Montenegro, Turkey, Switzerland, the Netherlands and beyond.

Balovin says he hardly comes into contact with money. "I almost don't use it at all. Sometimes people give me it - for example, someone might say, 'I want to offer you a ticket so take this money and you can buy the ticket yourself,' but normally I don't take money. I have to think about all the small details like a subway card and mobile phone credit," he says.

"The person who invites me will meet me, offer me a place to sleep, and tickets to the next city. I'm meeting other people who want to take part so they'll offer me different stuff for exchange. Usually, I get transportation tickets or sometimes they'll offer me a bicycle. Sometimes I just walk by foot."

Balovin creates up to 50 portraits a day to uphold his side of the bargain. There is no "going rate" for a portrait, he says.

"You decide," he says. "It can be anything, the value doesn't matter. A box of matches or a cup of coffee or pay for five bags of groceries. This is the principle. I don't make the prices. I have a wish list on my website. People often ask me what to bring me. You can follow it but it's not necessary to bring exactly that stuff."

Previously, Balovin posted a request for a new Apple MacBook which took two months to fulfil, while a flight to the US was a four-month wait.

On the surface, it sounds like a fantastic and even somewhat selfish deal where Balovin simply adds to his wish list and waits for a curious stranger to barter with him. But there are significant challenges to Balovin's way of life. He can't stroll into a cafe and order a cup of coffee on a whim, for example, and he has to make sure he brings his own bottled water when he's out so he doesn't have to buy any.

Nevertheless, he's managed to find ways to make things work. His unconventional life doesn't get in the way of dating either.

"I've gone on dates many times," he laughs. "Sometimes people just invite me to restaurants, sometimes they give me a free dinner with a friend on the house. I could also put it on my wish list."

This project, he says, has enabled him to travel the world though it takes a bit of organisation.

"I must have a plan for the next [few] days and I can only travel the world to the cities where people know about my project."

Balovin is unphased by critics who say his project is a cheapskate way to fund his lifestyle under the guise of art. "I agree that it's probably not art. I don't know. I can't say that it's for free because I work a lot," he says. "Is the work good or not? Maybe my sketches are not good at all but if people don't like it they don't take part in it. For me, it doesn't matter."

"My mother thinks that it's not proper art, [to her] it's more experience. She thinks that one day I'll come back to 'real art'. Sometimes people take it really seriously. Some people think it's a small game or they don't believe me."

For the time being, Balovin is more than happy with this alternative lifestyle which allows him to meet new and interesting people from all around the globe. "I learn a lot from them," he says. "This project has let me know that people are kind, actually. I can trust people. There are really good people and open-minded people in the world."

As for whether he will ever return to using money, Balovin is on the fence.

"I don't know," he says. "I don't have this plan. I finish my world trip in September 2014 so [I'll still be moneyless for] more than one year. It depends on how popular the project is and if I have some more opportunities or projects. We'll see. For me now, it's complicated to think about how I can come back to money."