It was 8pm on one of the busiest intersections in western Jakarta. Three men in metallic paint from head to toe stood on the footpath. Each was holding a silver can.
Alfan, 25, was one. When the light turned red, he walked in silence, barefoot, and stood in front of the stopped traffic. He bowed deeply for a few seconds and then struck a pose like a statue: standing straight, he raised his right hand to his temple and gave a salute in silence for about a minute without blinking.
At the end of his brief performance, Alfa gave another deep bow and approached the riders and drivers for a donation.
“I’ll go home when I have got enough money. The other day I got 80,000 rupiah ($5.70) before 10pm, so I went home,” Alfan said after he returned back to the footpath.
Alfan, who has two young children, is one of many cash-strapped Indonesians who have taken up the street art of manusia silver, or silvermen, to make ends meet during the pandemic. His work as a public minivan driver dried up when people were forced to stay at home when coronavirus hit last year.
He shares a bottle of silver paint, which consists of cooking oil and glitter ink usually used for screen printing, with another hard-up driver.
“It itches a lot. It hurts my skin. People also often asked whether we were drunk because our eyes would appear red, but we were not, it was the strong paint that irritated our eyes,” Alfan said.
Before the pandemic Alfan said he could earn 100,000-150,000 rupiah from his van, or angkot. But now it is difficult to find passengers and he can only get about Rp30,000 a day.
“It’s not enough even to buy milk for my children. So I decided to drive in the morning and do this silver thing at night. It was embarrassing at first when I have to stand in front of everyone. But I don’t think I have a choice.
“Until today I have never received any social assistance from the government. I have to do this to survive. We don’t do any crime; we are not forcing people to give us money. If they gave us money, thank God. But if not, then it’s OK,” Alfan said.
The head of central Jakarta’s social affairs agency, Ngapuli Peranginangin, said the appearance of the “silver humans” was one of the most noticeable features of the pandemic.
As the outbreak disrupted business activity in Indonesia, 2.67 million people have lost their jobs, according to Statistics Indonesia (BPS), bringing the unemployment rate to 7.07% in August 2020, the highest level since 2011.
Meanwhile, about 1.63 million Indonesians fell into poverty in March 2020, raising the official rate to 9.78% or 26.4 million people.
“These manusia silver started to appear on the streets after the pandemic. We have never seen them before this,” Ngapuli told the Guardian, before adding that the numbers had started to decrease after police launched raids to “put everything in order”.
Across the road from where Alfan stood, Desi, 25, took a brief rest, sitting under a tree on the footpath. Her body and her long ponytail were also covered in silver paint. Her husband, who is an angkot driver, worked in the morning, and at night she would try to earn money as manusia silver.
“I worked in a store last year, but after the large-scale restrictions the store owner decided to send some staff, including me, home because he can’t pay us any more. I try to find jobs here and there, but every store is suffering from the pandemic so they don’t have jobs for me,” Desi said.
“I come here at around 6pm every day to avoid the police raids because they usually happen during daytime,” she added.
Desi said she understood the dangers posed by the chemicals in the paint but said she had no choice.
“I got rashes on my body. I have to take a bath twice, first with dish soap, because that’s the only way I can remove the paint, and then finally with the body soap,” she said. “It might have affected my health but we need the money. We have two children at home; the first one is only three years old, the second one is only three months old. I have to remember them.”
Ngapuli said his agency had also often found children performing as silver humans on the streets. He said these children acted on their own, simply to seek pocket money.
However, the secretary general of the Indonesian Women’s Coalition (KPI), Mike Verawati, said the children who join the silver people must have been organised by adults.
“This is child exploitation,” Verawati said.
“The government must work with community groups to make programs for the young children so they can still learn and stay active during the pandemic, even though they cannot go to school,” she said. “The government must interfere in this situation so these children will not return to the streets.”