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Helium Johnny Spreads Good Vibes Through Red Balloons

By Paul Biasco | March 12, 2014 8:53am
 Johnny Michaels has been giving out red balloons since 2012.
Live Life Balloons
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LINCOLN PARK — In the fall of 2012, Lincoln Park resident Johnny Michael had the urge to go outside and make someone's day.

The 26-year-old decided the best way to do that was to buy a balloon and hand it to a stranger on the street.

A year and a half later, the balloons Michael gives out have grown up, literally, from the typical basketball-sized balloon to gigantic spheres that you couldn't wrap your arms around.

So far he's given out 46, and number 47 will be floating through Chicago any day now.

Michael, who has taken up the nickname Helium Johnny, adds a tag to the balloons that says "#lovelifeballoons," so people can tweet and Instagram about their gift.

Number 37 included the message "Be Brave," number 29, "Multiply The Love" and number 24, "Everyone Could Use a Lil' Pick-Me-Up."

In the fall, Michael followed a balloon sporting a painted black mustache to mark Movember on Instagram.

A young couple took it to Headquarters Beercade, bought it a drink, gave it a name, took it for a ride on the Red Line and eventually someone drew a sketch of them with their new balloon friend.

"I just wanted to go out and give something to someone, make their day and make a good memory for myself," Michael said. "It worked and I just kept doing it."

Johnny's Red Balloon Project is similar to another famous Chicago street artist who has been spreading good vibes for 12 years with his "you are beautiful" stickers.

Matthew Hoffman printed his 1.5 millionth sticker this year and they've showed up on all seven continents.

Michael has worked with Hoffman in recent years and helped him paint a giant 11 by 15 foot plyboard "you are beautiful" sticker replica that was put on display in the Chicago Cultural Center and is now along Lake Shore Drive at 39th Street.

"Our missions are a lot in line," Hoffman said. "We are both trying to do positive things and affect an individual to change their day or make things a little better that day."

Hoffman remembers the early days of his sticker project fondly.

"It's pretty exciting where he's at," Hoffman said. "He's really just starting on them ..  working on them, growing them."

The project could soon become as business opportunity as well.

The Detroit native already sells Helium Johnny t-shirts through his website that come in a shoebox stuffed with balloons for packaging and extra balloon string instead of shoelaces.

Last summer, he lead a bar crawl through Wrigleyville.

"I know for a fact TBOX started with like 13 or 12 people," he said. "Now it's 10,000. Some people, they don't know things start small."

This summer's Ballooner Bar Crawl is set for August 16. Each ticket includes a t-shirt, a balloon with positive message attached and a $5 donation to the Make a Wish Foundation.

He hopes to eventually turn the project into a guerilla-marketing style advertising business.

The idea would be to take a sample product, tie it to a balloon and walk around giving them out while a team of photographers and videographers capture the moments.

Whether the business succeeds or not, Johnny Helium has no plans to stop spreading the joy anytime soon.

"A balloon to me is a universal symbol of happiness, and that's why I think it works," he said.