How Stefanus Nel made his way around Europe and North and South America using his sketches as currency


I always told myself I’d travel more in my next life – not that I ever really believed I’d get a second life. It was only after the break-up of a nine-year relationship and the realisation that I was getting old (even my chest hair started going grey) that I started questioning what I was doing with my life. My fear of regretting things I haven’t done and places I haven’t seen was keeping me up at night. It was then that I decided fuck it, I’m doing something about it.

I started thinking about a trip where I could do more than just sightseeing. I love drawing, so I was thinking of a way to combine it with travelling. Over a period of three months the Blink Project was born. The idea was to turn my drawings into a currency that I would use to ‘buy’ things on my trip through Central and South America. My designer Susan Aukema designed a creative cheque book for me, which I could use to draw in and then exchange the drawings for things I might need.

Blink cheques are similar to real cheques – each cheque has a unique number, a Blink Stefanus watermark and a place where you write what the cheque was used for. To see if the idea worked, I decided to see if people were willing to exchange things I needed for the trip for my drawings. I managed to exchange everything and more – from a backpack to a first aid kit to sunglasses and flip-flops. I even swapped a drawing for a nail set with a guy in Canada.

That was four months ago. Since then I’ve bought many things with Blink cheques, including accommodation in Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Nicaragua, Germany, France and Texas. I’ve bought many drinks, toiletries (and batteries for my electric toothbrush), meals, clothes and even art works. I used a cheque for a haircut for my cameraman in Brazil. I’ve exchanged a cheque for a poem with a published poet in a bar and had the first two lines of the poem tattooed on my arm – the tattoo artist gave me 50% off for a cheque. I’ve tipped street puppeteers in Buenos Aires with a cheque and they invited me to their flat the following evening for dinner and a bottle of wine.

The Blink Project is a living example of the power of art as a global currency and a language that everyone speaks. One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to the Boer community in Sarmiento, Patagonia. I exchanged Blink cheques in Afrikaans for speaking Afrikaans to people who have never been to Africa. I also exchanged cheques for a jar of homemade fig jam, a braaivleis with Oom Piet, a jacket and fresh koeksisters. I was going to stay for only two days but ended up staying a week. They invited me into their homes and treated me like I was their son or brother. Now that I am back home I will try to use Blink cheques to bring three of these Boer descendants back to SA for a holiday.

After four months on the road I’m ready to head back to SA, but I’ve already started planning Blink Project North Korea. After all, I still have another 40 chequebooks.


Click on an image to see the pictures in gallery form. Scroll down to see captions.



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