Ali Rashied never saw a balloon artist during his childhood in Iraq, recalling his first exposure was at age 30 watching the iconic scene from Jim Carey’s “The Mask,” where Carey twists balloons into animals and a Tommy gun.
Although he was late to discover the art of “balloon twisting,” as he calls it, Rashied, 38, is now a professional known as “Ali the Balloon Guy.”
He twists and weaves balloons into extraordinarily detailed works of art, driven by the joy of those he entertains.
“I love the shine in their eyes and their smiling,” Rashied said. “They say, ‘Wow.’ Most people think of basic animal balloons.”
A married father of two young children, he entertains and makes balloon art for all ages at parties, senior centers, youth programs, festivals and a regular gig closest to his heart at IHOP in Southington.
It was at IHOP where he got his big break about four years ago, so he said nothing will stand in the way of him appearing there every Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
He visits tables making free balloon art. He doesn’t get paid by IHOP but accepts tips.
“I absolutely love him. He’s amazing with the kids, customers and staff,” said Natalia Dudzinski, general manager for the Southington restaurant. “Sometimes they come just for him.”
Those who have seen Rashied work his balloon magic say he is as kind, polite and entertaining as he is talented at “balloon twisting.”
Robin Glowa, director of Human Services in Bethany, said he’s performed for children there in the morning and seniors in the afternoon. Glowa said she’s amazed how he will flip-flop from one end of the age spectrum to another. One of his creations, she said, was a monkey hanging on a palm tree with coconuts and bananas.
“They truly are works of art,” Glowa said, adding that the senior citizens “were as happy as I’ve ever seen them.
“He made a beautiful balloon for every senior.”
Rashied did a sixth birthday party for Nolan Gonzalez, and his mother, Erica Gonzalez, hired him for her daughter’s upcoming first birthday.
“He was amazing with all the kids. He interacted with each one of them,” Erica Gonzalez said, noting he made Nolan a Sonic the Hedgehog. “The balloons were amazing. The kids loved them.”
Rashied learned about the balloon business about seven years ago while helping a friend on jobs building balloon arches and columns for parties. The friend twisted balloons into little flowers to fill gaps and Rashied was enthralled.
“That idea of turning that long balloon into a flower was just amazing to me. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
Rashied followed up by buying a simple balloon art kit at Walmart, watching YouTube videos and practicing.
“I was really in love with it,” he said.
He continued to practice and, in 2016, volunteered to make balloon creations as part of fundraiser through ShopRite in Orange where he worked as a cashier. In the years that followed, he twisted balloons for schools, park and recreation departments, libraries, a YMCA and other venues as a volunteer to build his skills and his event business.
Rashied, who enjoyed drawing as a youngster, can make just about any character, including old-school cartoons such as Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner. He does superheroes, princesses, mermaids, flowers, Minions and animals, including a bald eagle. He even makes life-sized balloon characters with detailed faces.
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Rashied offers a board with 150 designs but can step to others quickly — often people show him a photo on a phone.
“It’s safe to say I can twist anything you think of,” Rashied said.
About five years ago, Rashied decided he wanted to make balloon twisting his full-time career. He went to a couple of restaurants and asked if he could twist balloons free of charge — for tips only. They turned him down, and Rashied said he started to “lose hope.” He was successful on the third try at IHOP in Manchester. Rashied said he made the manager a penguin balloon and got the gig. He eventually moved from the Manchester location to Southington, closer to his home in Meriden.
“I love interacting with people — the smiles, the memories we create,” Rashied said.
Rashied said patience is the No. 1 ingredient needed for balloon twisting. He said one always has to be prepared for a balloon to pop at an event, and it gets tricky when it’s a piece where the balloons are woven. Tipping for a balloon figure is optional, but with every creation he includes a business card.
“This was my way of promoting my business,” he said.
Now that he’s well-known in the area, other restaurants have tried to get him to entertain customers, but Rashied said he’s loyal to IHOP where it all began.