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Carving a living out of the Torremolinos sand

Manchester John began sand sculpting on the beach in Torremolinos in 1999. He has become as popular as the sculptures he creates.
Manchester John began sand sculpting on the beach in Torremolinos in 1999. He has become as popular as the sculptures he creates. / T. B.
  • While the tourists soak up the sun and enjoy the beach, others are kept busy trying to earn a wage

Summer has arrived with a vengeance and the beaches along the Costa del Sol are full of tourists enjoying their annual vacations. While the visitors relax on the beach and soak up the sun, others are busy trying to make a living, whether working in the chiringuitos, or hiring out sun beds and pedalos. Others, like John, a sand sculptor who works on the beach in Torremolinos, use their artistic skills to make ends meet.

Born in Manchester in 1957, hence the affectionate name of Manchester John, the 61-year-old artist studied graphic art at Oldham Art College. Although John has always had a passion for art, his dream was to become a professional footballer. He had trials for a feeding club for Manchester United - the club he dreamed of playing for - but a badly broken ankle ended his career before it began.

John spent many years working in the graphic design industry in Manchester, before selling his home to start afresh in Spain. Arthritis had been giving John many problems since his injury and so, on the advice of his doctors, a life in the sun seemed like the best option.

He arrived in Torremolinos in 1979, working as a barman in Hardy's Bar in the notorious Combat Alley. However, John broke his ankle again while playing football on the beach, so he returned to the UK during the mid-1980s to seek specialist treatment. Unfortunately, doctors were unable to fix his ankle and so John has suffered from his injuries ever since.

It was not too long before he decided to return to Spain, although his injury made it difficult for him to work for long periods. It was during this time that he came across an "old guy" who was making a huge sand sculpture on the beach. John got chatting to the artist and ended up earning a few coppers in return for collecting the water from the sea. John began helping the artist regularly and soon became familiar with the art of sculpting with sand.

"One day, the previous artist [whose name he does not recall] said he was leaving and told me that I could use his spot, so I took over and began making my own sculptures. Back then, artists could earn good money, because there were not many people doing it. Today this has changed, as there are now many trying to earn a living from sand sculpturing," John explains to SUR in English.

John has now been a regular attraction on the Bajondillo beach in Torremolinos for almost 20 years and in that time he has created hundreds of outstanding sculptures.

Beach wedding

In 2013, John married his Finnish girlfriend, Paive, and she has now become his water carrier and companion whenever possible.

"We met seven years ago in a bar in Torremolinos. We got married here on the beach [he points to a small pergola just yards from where he works]. It was an absolutely fabulous day, because we had a '60s themed wedding and everyone dressed in psychedelic clothes and coloured wigs," he says, bursting into laughter as he recalls the event.

Even though John is a competent artist, his creations do not start as drawings, for he prefers to work spontaneously, creating whatever comes into his head. He tries to keep his creations topical and is currently working on a World Cup themed scene. This depicts a fan slumped on a sofa - a can of beer in one hand and a sleeping dog at his feet - watching the match on a huge television. His sculptures have included a massive nativity scene, the crucifixion of Christ, temples, monsters and mermaids, and a life-size elephant carrying a lance-bearing warrior.

Although it is illegal to request money from tourists, his work has been appreciated by thousands, a few of whom left a surprising reward: others have doubted whether his sculptures were constructed solely of sand and water.

Unexpected donation

Several years ago one of his crucifixion scenes caught the attention of an elderly Spanish lady, who left a roll of money next to the sculptor. John later discovered she had donated more than 200 euros.

On another occasion, several unruly British tourists questioned whether the lance carried by an Indian warrior was merely a broom handle coated with sand.

"One of the guys bet me 50 euros, because he couldn't believe that it was made solely of sand. It boosted my earnings considerably that day," John says in his amusing Mancunian manner.

However, as John is keen to point out, it doesn't always go in his favour. There have been occasions when he has misjudged the mixture of sand and salt water, only to see he creation - which may have taken two or three days to make - suddenly tumble to the ground. Obviously when this happens, he has to start from scratch, but he never tires of working on the beach, even though he is now struggling more with his ankle. To add to this, the authorities have also been clamping down on sand sculptors, although John is respected because of his etiquette towards the beach.

"Last week the police arrived to move a group of people who had set up camp on the beach. They had begun to build a large sand sculpture, but the authorities bulldozed it because they were not supposed to be living here," John explains.

John has tried to obtain a permit to ply his trade on the beach, but the town hall is yet to introduce such a licence. Because the beaches are public, there are no current rules that forbid this type of activity.