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Peruvian Photographer Moonlights as Jackson Heights Clown

JACKSON HEIGHTS — Growing up in Peru, Luis Salazar's dream was to become a photographer, following in the footsteps of his late father, who shot for the Peruvian newspaper El Tiempo.

Decades later, Salazar has taken a slightly different tack: succeeding as a clown in Queens.

The 50-year-old Salazar, who goes by "Payasito Chiquitín" when he's on the job, has been performing as a clown for the last 20 years, long after ditching his camera for a blue nose and floppy shoes.

"No more," Salazar said of his photography career. "I can't live [off] that."

On the weekend, Payasito Chiquitín — "payasito" meaning "clown" and "chiquitín" meaning "little guy" — hops on a motorcycle with the license plate CLOWN1 and travels from his home in Astoria to Jackson Heights and Corona, looking for business.

He dresses up in a blue and white sailor's outfit, made up with blue lipstick and blue freckles, a long, blue rubber nose and giant, floppy shoes with fake toes popping out the front.

He works parties, putting together a set with magic, music and dancing. After two decades, he knows how to gauge children's reactions who's afraid and who isn't — and he's developed his own methods to interact with parents and get everyone involved.

In fact, he's gotten so good that he has completely stopped taking photographs for money.

"It's not easy working as a photographer in New York," Salazar said. "There's no more good business."

Salazar began taking pictures at the age of 19, receiving very little training besides a few courses at a local photography school in Peru before branching out to do freelance event photography, covering weddings and birthday parties.

In 1980, a business trip led to a life change. Salazar was working as an assistant to a farmer and fisherman who did business in the United States, and asked Salazar to fly with him for a week-long trip.

But during their stay, the boss had a heart attack. As Salazar stayed longer in America, he saw an opportunity to follow his dream of becoming a photographer.

"I said, 'Forget it, the U.S.A. is different,'" Salazar said. "You can come here and make your dream come true."

Salazar quit his job and moved in with family in Astoria, taking odd jobs through the years as a truck driver and restaurant worker in order to support career as an event photographer.

One day, while shooting a party in which a clown was supposed to perform, the clown called to say he wouldn't show up. Salazar argued, but the man refused.

So he decided to don the clown costume himself and simultaneously shoot photos and perform. It was the birth of Chiquitín.

For a while during the early '90s, Salazar said he would wear the costume to drum up business for his photography career. But when his business started to wane as new technology made taking photos easier, he started to perform full time for Jackson Heights and Corona residents.

"I like it," Salazar said. "I'm happy to see the people relax, forget their problems, forget their bills."

But there have been problems recently. Salazar was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle a few weeks ago, and has gone from performing two shows a week to two shows a month.

On top of that, he said that there have been an influx of clowns in the neighborhood over the last three years, increasing competition. In one instance, after inviting a group of clowns he'd just met over to his house, Salazar said he found some of them performing part of his act on the street.

"One clown sees another clown. He wants to do what you're doing," Salazar said. "That's not a clown, that's a pirate."

Still, Salazar said that clowning around is his new dream.

If asked to choose between being a successful clown or a successful photographer, he said he would still be "a clown, for sure." And he's recently begun trying to sell his old camera equipment.

"Any picture I take, I take for Chiquitín," Salazar said.