Addi Somekh is recognized as one of the most innovative, prolific and well-traveled balloon artists in the world today. He has appeared on The Today Show, The Tonight Show, and Martha Stewart, as well as working for companies such as Google, Nike and Oprah. He also starred in his own TLC reality show “The Unpoppables,” which followed his company, New Balloon Art, building impossibly large, interactive balloon installations at high-end events across the globe.
In his career, he traveled to 35 countries in an exploration on the origins of laughter and joy, using his balloon art to bring people of different cultures and backgrounds together. That journey is captured in stunning photographs and travel tales in his latest book Inflatable Planet (Goff Books) coming out Fall/Winter 2022.
How did you first become interested in balloon art and when did you know you had a skill for it?
When I was a child I was never interested in balloons, or cartoons or anything like that. I don’t recall ever being given a balloon animal when I was a child. I just wanted to be a trombone player and play with 80 year old jazz drummers but I lacked musical skill, as well as any other form of artist skill (drawing, photography, ceramics, etc.)
At the end of my first year of college, I fell in love with a woman who had a massive tumor in her face and needed to have a very complex surgery. She was also in love with someone else. So it was complicated and emotionally draining. I spent a lot of time in bed crying and my dad thought I was just smoking pot and being lazy so he told me that I needed to pay for my own car insurance from now on in order to motivate me to get a job. Since it was already July, the only job I could find was twisting balloons for tips at restaurants.
I started practicing in my room, but I was still crying a lot, and somehow it was like Peter Parker getting bit by the radioactive spider–all of a sudden I developed this weird super power that I could easily make complicated things. That blew people’s minds and filled them with joy (and made lots of cash at the same time).
The problem was I was totally embarrassed that the only thing in life I was good at was basically being a novelty act. But I was making so much money I never stopped.
You’ve showcased your talent on some impressive TV shows and stages. What is your coolest Hollywood balloon art story?
I was hired to make balloon art once at a big Hollywood producers’ party and there were A-Listers splattered all over the place, Kobe Bryant, Bradley Cooper, Gwen Stefani, Robert Downey Jr, and loads more. I don’t get star struck or nervous and I had fun twisting for everyone.
But then it came time to walk up to Barbara Streisand and ask if she wanted anything, and all of a sudden, I was really intimidated. I felt like I was walking up to Tony Soprano, she had that type of old school powerful vibe to her. But I pretended I was an actor, and was as nonchalant as possible. I asked her if she wanted a balloon ring (I make really adorable rings with balloons). She gave me a dubious look at first but wound up really liking it. It was definitely a surreal afternoon.
You also work as a speaker. What do you hope your audiences take away from your story?
I have a lot of experience with public speaking and am able to “twist” the metaphor of the balloon into all sorts of different topics. So when I get paid to speak, my goal is to make sure my client gets their money’s worth.
But the thing that connects all the different public speaking I do is that I want people to walk away with a feeling that life makes a little more sense. That it is not all chaos and doom, as we see on the news. That is giving a legit dose of inspiration, not just a short lived sugar high.
(PS, The class at UCSC I teach is called “Meaning, Paradox and Love,” so I have a lot of experience talking about those topics too.)
What project has brought you the most joy?
On the simple side, I still like to carry some balloons in my pocket and if I see someone sad, just making a dog or flower for them and seeing their expression change is spiritually rewarding (and quite simple for anyone to learn).
Recently, I started an organization called the Balloon Art Brigade that is a club in colleges and high schools, so teaching a new generation of kids how to twist balloons is both meaningful and rewarding.
Tell us about your new book. What can readers expect from it? What are some of the places you visited and what types of balloon art do you create?
All the balloon art that was created was made by me using the skinny twisting balloons (that you see people making animals out of). I use those balloons to improvise crowns that are designed to reflect each individual’s unique personality and aura. No two hats in the book are the same. I mouth inflated all the balloons (which in retrospect is low key insane). And we gave all the balloons for free (though we were happy to trade for a ride, a meal or a hug).
Charlie the photographer and I visited 34 countries and 20 US states between 1996 and 1999 (with one more trip to the Amazon jungle in Brazil in 2001).
The goal was to show that no matter how different people are – different languages, religions, politics, aesthetics, etc. – everyone is born with a sense of humor and ability to laugh. That nobody has to learn how to laugh, it’s innate in all people – and that’s why laughter sounds the same in every language. We forget that because the differences are so obvious and often complicated. But it is important to remember the paradox that we are all so different yet so similar at the same time.
The book has over 250 photos and has stories about people we met around the world. It is not written to be “Addi and Charlie’s Crazy Adventures”. In fact, there are only two photos of me and one photo of Charlie in the entire book. The focus is on the people we met, their lives and stories, and some of the things we learnt from them.
And bonus! Reggie Watts wrote the preface.
You created a band called Unpopable! Tell us about how you created the balloon bass and what’s next up for the band?
Ironically, I became a balloon twister because when I was young I really wanted to play music but totally lacked the talent. But when I was 19 and started twisting balloons for a summer job and realized I was good at it, I just took the jazz philosophy of improvisation and applied it to improvising balloon crowns..
But then when I was 28 I was working for Martha Stewart in her backyard in upstate New York and I got bit by a tick and got Lyme’s Disease. So I moved to LA to be around fresh fruit and sunshine and try to get better. I was in bed for about 6 months and that is when I learnt to make and play the balloon bass because literally all I could do was move my fingers at the time. Had I not been bit by that tick, I probably would never have been a musician.
The balloon bass is made entirely out of biodegradable latex balloons and air, but it sounds like an upright bass. It is 3 and a half octaves, and you can play all kinds of music on it – jazz, bluegrass, hip hop, everything.
My band is called Unpopable and I am joined by Joey Maramba on electric bass and Arlynn Page on vocals and we play with lots of different drummers. We play music that is funky, noisy and never boring.