Rob Balchunas, Balloon Animal Virtuoso

Rob Balchunas, Balloon Animal Virtuoso

Jun 17, 2024

When the creative team behind PAPER's Orville Peck cover suggested building an enormous bull out of balloons for Peck to perch atop, we at first couldn't believe it'd even be possible to bring such an idea to life. With so much photo magic done in post-production today, the thought of constructing this tangible balloon animal felt immediately powerful.

But how, exactly, could one find an artist capable of actually pulling it off?

Enter Rob Balchunas, also known as "Rob The Balloon Guy" — a balloon artist in the truest sense of the phrase. Balchunas spent about 15 hours constructing the balloon bull for our cover shoot, working from reference photos to create a "weave" form capable of staying together under Peck's weight.

"It's a bit like building with Legos," Balchunas tells us, "but you can also make the Lego bricks any shape you want.

Below, PAPER caught up with Balchunas to talk about his ballooning origins, tips for getting into balloon artistry and more. See Orville Peck's cover shoot, here.

Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into the balloon business?

My parents took me to the circus every year when I was a child. There was a Ringling Bros. store in our local mall that we would visit frequently, and my parents bought me kits on how to twist balloons, how to juggle and how to perform magic. Balloons fascinated me the most. I twisted my first balloon dog when I was four years old. Once we got the internet, I discovered a community of balloon artists around the world, who I would eventually meet at conventions. I was able to make strong friendships with people who understood the medium I loved working with most, and I've been able to work on some fun collaborations with them around the world.

Is something of this size (the bull, that is) a challenge for you at this point in your career?

Working on this scale actually makes it easier to create detail. It's very difficult to create a well-defined sculpture with just one balloon. You have to be really precise with bubble size and the right amount of air to put into the balloon. With the bull, I combined many different sizes and shapes of balloons. It's a bit like building with Legos, but you can also make the Lego bricks any shape you want.

What was the process like for constructing the bull? How long did it take?

The bull took about 15 hours to make. I start with reference photos of what I'm trying to make. Sometimes I'll place a grid over them to make sure my proportions are correct. I look at all the different shapes in what I'm trying to make and figure out what techniques and balloon types I can use to recreate it. I used a technique that the balloon industry calls "weaving," which creates a fairly solid structure. The body and legs were essentially tubes, so I had to figure out when to change the size of specific bubbles to widen or constrict the tube. The most nerve-wracking part was making the horns. I had to hope that a now-discontinued balloon shape was still usable — balloons are made of natural latex and break down over time -- and stuff that shape into another balloon to achieve the correct color.

What's your top tip for making balloon structures?

Experiment and play. A lot of people like to learn recipes and replicate them. There's something satisfying to me about coming up with something on my own, or starting with something someone else has done and going in a completely different direction. Working with balloons almost my entire life has given me an understanding of them that allows me to make anything. So that, and use good-quality balloons.

Photography: Brett Loudermilk