The Balloon Sculptor

There is an art to breathing life into a balloon.
Hampton Keith Bishop selects one of the 600,000 unblown balloons that are hanging on the wall in a rainbow of color.
It happens to be a pretty pearl lemon chiffon hue.
He attaches it to a precision air inflator, the black box that can be carefully calibrated to release .1 to 9.9 seconds of air in a single instance.
He sets the buttons — .5 of a second, 1 second, 1.5 seconds – stopping at each to show the results as he pumps up the balloon to the perfect size.
Size isn’t the only balloon attribute Hampton can change; he’s an expert at altering colors.
He deflates the pearl lemon chiffon balloon and stuffs it with a spring green balloon, inserting one inside the other on the top of a long stick.
The black box does its magic, and the balloon-within-the-balloon blossoms into a luminous green/gold watermelon.
“It is,” he says, “like mixing paint.”
Since he started HKBalloons NYC at the end of 2015, Hampton has literally blown up hundreds of thousands of balloons sans a single premature pop.
His creations have appeared at corporate and celebrity events, have been exhibited at art shows and have starred in films (Survivor is coming out this year) and on TV (he’s done projects for several shows, including Saturday Night Live, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 30 Rock: A One-Time Special, Love Life, Blue Bloods, Girls5eva and Pose).
In 2018, for a satellite show by Maarkah at the Museum of the City of New York during New York Fashion Week, models wore gowns made of HKBalloons. (Hampton didn’t have a dress form handy so he used a body-size inflatable champagne bottle as a size guide for the expandable couture.)
And in the depths of the pandemic, Hampton created elaborate holiday balloon scenes outside his home office on Astoria Boulevard South facing Astoria Park.
“I didn’t have anything to do during the lockdowns,” he says. “I just needed to create something, so I designed them as messages of hope.”
Balloons, you see, represent happiness to Hampton, who is from Bowling Green, Kentucky. (If you listen carefully, you can still hear a slight accent through his smooth stage voice.)
He twisted his first balloon in first grade after his babysitter gave him a book on the subject.
His neighbor, a Ringling Bros clown who owned a costume shop, allowed Hampton to work in the store, tutored him on balloon twisting and mentored him on the finer points of musical theater, which was Hampton’s major at Belmont University.
“I was always fascinated by balloons and hot-air balloons,” Hampton says, “and I used to build giant sculptures out of trash bags in my front yard when I was a child. I loved being able to create something out of nothing.”
After graduating from college and working at Dollywood, Hampton moved to Astoria to hit the New York City musical-theater audition circuit.
Like all performers, he took a variety of jobs to pay the rent.
His stints with the custom holiday design company American Christmas, the show producer RWS Entertainment Group, and the party store Balloon Saloon proved pivotal to the formation of HKBalloons NYC.
The company (the HKB is Hampton’s monogram, and he’s delighted that it just so happens to end in B for balloon!) started out as nothing more than an imaginative idea.
“I started in my apartment with three to four bags of balloons,” he says. “And I twisted balloons in Central Park for tips at the end of the month to make enough money to pay my rent. Suddenly, it just took off.”
Hampton, who is a solo show, runs the company out of his basement and lives in the apartment above the office.
Sometimes clients ask him to replicate their designs; other times, they commission him to come up with ideas and execute them.
Large projects are blown up in sections in Hampton’s office and assembled on site, a job he likens to putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
“Sometimes, they take up my entire apartment, too,” he says, adding that when there’s still not enough space, he rents a box truck to store and transport them.
In May 2019, for instance, when HKBalloons NYC created the SNL set for the Jonas Brothers, Hampton made the 5,000-balloon sculpture in sections and trucked it to the Manhattan studio.
“I actually created it twice,” he says. “I did one for the color check and one for the live show. I popped all the balloons of the first one with scissors.”
That one really hurt, Hampton says, because nobody except the production crews got to see it.
That’s the thing about balloon sculptures – they are appealing, in large part, precisely because, like bouquets of live blooms, they aren’t supposed to last forever.
Speaking of forever, Hampton, who just turned 33, isn’t sure where his balloon business will lead him.
He’s at a point where he can pick and choose his projects, he’s just not sure what the next big thing will be.
He’s thought about expanding and hiring people to help him, but for now, he’ll just take things one balloon at a time.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @nancyruhling and visit

Candidates spar in pair of debates in 24 hours

Three candidates vying for an Astoria City Council seat faced off in a pair of debates less than 24 hours apart last week, giving their opinions on local issues just a week before voters go to the polls.
Tiffany Cabán, the winner of the Democratic primary, Felicia Kalan, the Republican candidate, and Edwin DeJesus, who is running as an independent, are all on the ballot for a seat that has been vacant since the departure of Costa Constantinides.
Among the topics discussed were vaccination mandates, public safety concerns and the city’s recent elimination of the Gifted and Talented programs in schools.
“If it saves lives, it’s worth doing,” Caban said of the mandates. “We’ve got to do it.”
Kalan and DeJesus disagreed, with the Republican candidate unsettled with people losing their jobs or not having access to education based on their vaccination status.
Candidates were asked about the uptick in crime and gang-related violence in the 114th Precinct, which Kalan stated was the most important issue in the race.
“We pay a $98 billion budget, and I think public safety is a basic city service,” said Kalan. “First of all, we cannot be defunding the police. We should be investing in crime prevention. I think the best way we can do that is through investing in education and economic opportunities for people.”
Cabán shared concerns of public safety, but focused on the efficacy of the NYPD and said violence is up due to the ongoing economic crisis.
“Why we pump more money into a police force that is proven to disproportionately brutalize black and brown folks and also not get good public safety results is beyond me,” she said.
Cabán said she agreed with the decision of the outgoing mayor to phase out the Gifted and Talented program, favoring a holistic learning environment for students.
“We have really encouraged this scarcity mentality where parents and students are fighting over limited resources, when the fact is we have almost a $90 billion budget and we need to be pumping more of it into our schools so that every single child has the opportunity to learn and thrive,” she said, “no matter their ability, no matter the manner in which they learn.”
Kalan said that she is against eliminating the program and would rather see it expanded.
“I think this just goes to show why the mayor should not have full control over the education system,” said Kalan. “I actually didn’t have my daughter take the test because we love our school, but I don’t want to take opportunities away from other children.”
DeJesus disagreed.
“I think it was a huge mistake,” he said. “I think we should have expanded the Gifted and Talented programs. It shouldn’t have been all or nothing.”
Pressed about the selection of community board members, the candidates gave different views on how to increase civic engagement.
“I think that we need a commitment to making sure that there is a diverse cross-section of folks represented on the community board,” said Caban. “We can’t ignore the fact that there are folks that have lacked representation on our community boards for a long time.”
DeJesus said residents that haven’t lived in a neighborhood for at least five years should be barred from serving on a community board.
“We need to have more representation from people who have been living in Astoria their entire lives, such as myself,” said the 24-year-old Astoria native. “Whether you’re from Richmond Hill like Tiffany Cabán or Ohio like Felicia Kalan, that’s totally fine, but we have to make sure that people have been living here for at least five years. That’s how we get seniors involved, the disabled community involved, veterans involved, but also young people like myself.”
Kalan corrected the record, saying she was born in Indiana, but said her heart is in Astoria where she raises her two children.
“I actually tried to get on the community board, funny enough, just a few years ago and I was not able to do that,” she said. “I don’t think that who is on the community board should be determined by a City Council person.”
When asked about the protected bike lanes on Crescent Street, candidates offered their views on bicycle infrastructure throughout the city.
DeJesus said his primary mode of transportation is by bike, and he would want to expand biking in general.
Kalan said she was not in favor of the Crescent Street bike lanes due to the fact it eliminates parking in front of the emergency room at Mt. Sinai Hospital.
“I can’t think of a single person I know who is for the bike lane on Crescent Street,” said Kalan. “I think we should be engaging the community.”
Cabán said that the Crescent Street bike lane has to be “better protected,” and that expanding the bike lane infrastructure is critical to combating the climate crisis.
“We will not have a world to hand off to our children or our children’s children if we don’t change the way that we live right now,” said Cabán. “The government’s job is to create the infrastructure so that those changes are incentivized.”
Cabán added that planning where bike lanes are placed is often reactionary rather than strategic.
“Too often, not just here but around the city, we’ll get a bike lane put in after someone dies, rather than being proactive and looking at the connectivity and where it makes sense to do these bike lanes,” said Caban.

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