Culture 16 August 2018
Bar bathrooms are dark, dingy, and surprisingly omniscient. Sammy Smith became privy to this long-kept secret of toilet-side wisdom when she moved to NYC. She was in her mid-twenties, fresh out of college in the Golden State, and searching—as every twenty-something is—for answers. Answers to the questions that can’t properly be verbalized. Essentially, answers to life. Her answers appeared while she was at a bar on Hudson Street. “I was in the bathroom and I looked up and there was something so poignant on the wall, and I was like, ‘That’s it! That is the answer to everything! This is going to get me through my twenties!’ And I went out and wrote it on a napkin and I put it in my back pocket,” Smith recalls with a laugh. “I pulled out this wad of napkin from my back pocket the next morning and couldn’t read anything on it, but it was my first introduction to it, to the amazing content out there from all different people. If you think of it now, those were the original status updates, like on Facebook or Twitter, but hard copy.”
When given the key to life, albeit in an unexpected form, there’s only one thing to do: publish a book. Smith couldn’t hog all of that knowledge to herself, after all, but she needed some time to decide binding up her findings in print was the best next step. It took moving back to California—San Francisco—and her best friend gifting her a book in which to write down all of the bar-bathroom messages she encountered. Soon Smith realized writing them wasn’t enough, it didn’t sufficiently capture the walls’ scrawls. “I realized one of the best parts of it was the penmanship and the banter back and forth and the spelling or lack of spelling,” Smith says. “And so I started taking pictures of them. I borrowed my dad’s Canon Rebel, which I loved, and I went out with this big bulky camera shoved in a purse because I didn't want to be too conspicuous walking into a bathroom.” Smith is not a classically trained photographer, but she has the eye for it and sees value in the moments snapped and crystallized.
“I think from being a history major and lover of history, really I love to capture time,” Smith says. “To me, photography is about capturing moments and capturing time. So there are a couple different sides to my art I think. There’s photography and writing and social history and all of that.”
“I would always get a drink and then by the end of it I was friends with the bartender or someone else sitting there. I’d tell them about my project and they’d love it"
Smith reveals her preppy fashion sense—picture plaid on plaid—did not blend in with the punk-rock dive bars she was photographing, but her personality won over bartenders and patrons alike. “I would always get a drink and then by the end of it I was friends with the bartender or someone else sitting there,” Smith says. “I’d tell them about my project and they’d love it. Guys would lead me into the mens room probably thinking they were getting more than me just taking photos. I was like, ‘No, I’m just here to take photos, really!’” Thanks to her sociability, Smith got more than cocktails from the bartenders while scoping out the bars, she got the true inside scoop. Bartenders would excitedly show Smith their own favorite bathroom messages, pointing out things she might not have noticed otherwise. Who knows what words lurk in the corners of the walls better than the bartenders?
“I was just in Seattle and I took a bunch of pictures in this one bathroom. I loved this one that said ‘bitches get shit done’ and it had two cherries above it, and then below it somebody had written ‘but they can’t be president,’ and someone had written below that ‘that’s the damn truth.’ I just love that dialogue. I was looking through all my film and I saw another one that I hadn’t noticed before that said ‘witches get shit done,’ and I thought it was hilarious next to the other one. There are little hidden gems all over.”
“It’s broken down by love and heartbreak, and there’s a section on pizza versus tacos, and one about body parts—people love to draw and talk about body parts"
In 2015, Smith compiled her eclectic photographs in a book of nearly 300 pages and cleverly titled it, Advice From John. Self-publishing was the name of the game, Smith having gotten a loan from her dad, and she found a printing company in Minneapolis. She describes Advice From John as a “coffee table book,” quite a wonderfully atypical one at that. “It’s broken down by love and heartbreak, and there’s a section on pizza versus tacos, and one about body parts—people love to draw and talk about body parts.” Anonymous wit, humor, and wisdom from those whiling away in restrooms paints each page. There are no limits in what striking content can be stripped from a stall.
“I thought Advice from John was so cool as a book, but then when I was looking at some of the pictures, they’re layered and have all this color and these poignant things that they say—some sad, some profound, some of them really stupid, like one was ‘I like your face so hard,’—I needed them to be bigger, so I blew them up and printed them on metal with vibrant colors.”
"When I was looking at some of the pictures in there, they’re layered and they have all this color and these poignant things that they say—some sad, some profound, some of them really stupid. I needed them to be bigger, so I blew them up and printed them on metal with all these vibrant colors"
Smith says that self-publishing is not the hard part, rather getting one’s finished product out there is, especially with a day job keeping you busy. Smith is a personal assistant with unpredictable hours, a blessing and a curse. “It’s definitely not a 9-5, which is great...sometimes,” Smith admits. “I just got into a relationship a couple of years ago and got the work-life balance talk from my girlfriend recently. I haven’t been balancing it well, but I’m going to try to again. It’s a lot. Like I said, I love my job and that everyday is different, but if I’m not working on my own creativity and passion projects, then what’s the point of it all?”Luckily Smith’s boss encourages her artistic endeavors and allows her the freedom to take a couple days off here and there to make important leaps with her art, and he isn’t the only one, Smith’s parents offering their support as well. “I have a great support system,” Smith says. “My mom and stepdad were [at my show in San Francisco], holding the easel for me. I worked so hard on making the book, I didn’t want all these copies sitting in my garage, so this year I made a commitment to myself that I was really going to take more time to work on it. I’d say I’d given it probably 25% more of my time factoring in my day job. I probably need to give it 50% more for it to really push off.”
What’s next for Smith’s art? “I’m really trying to contact hotels, restaurants, and those kinds of places,” she says. “I think it’s the kind of thing that’s instagrammable. Everybody wants to take a picture with a giant neon sign that says ‘I do what I want.’ There’s a science to it.” Smith also dreams of being an art model, her pieces on display in all of their neon glory in a funky city like Miami; from there, she hopes her art will sell her books. Her ultimate goal would be to make her dreams her day job, dedicating all of her time to Advice From John and her art.
Now, thanks to Smith and that bar she stumbled upon years ago, you know to never underestimate the messy, silly, meaningful etchings on a bathroom wall. Your eyes might catch sight of the very thing that changes the course of your life.
3 min read
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Help! I'm Dating a Jerk!
Dear Armchair Psychologist,
I've been dating my boyfriend for a year. After spending some vacation time with him and realizing he is not treating me the way I like I'm wondering — what do I do? I need him to be kinder and softer to me but he says simply, "chivalry is not his thing." I believe when two people decide to be together they need to adjust to each other. I don't think or feel my boyfriend is adjusting to what's important to me. Should I try to explain to him what's important to me, accept him for what he is, or leave him as I'm just not happy and the little gestures are important to me?
- Loveless Woman
Dear Loveless Woman,I am saddened you aren't getting your needs met in your relationship. Intimacy and affection are important to sustain a healthy relationship. It's troubling that even though you have expressed your needs to your boyfriend that it's fallen on deaf ears. You need to explore, with a therapist, why you have sought out this type of relationship and why you have stayed in it, even when it's making you chronically unhappy? Your belief that couples should adjust to each other is correct to some degree. These things often include compromising and bending on things like who gets the bigger closet or where to go for dinner. However, it's a tall order to ask someone to change their personality and if your boyfriend is indeed a jerk, like you say, who refuses to acknowledge your love language or express kindness and softness, then maybe you should find a partner who will embrace you while being chivalrous.
- The Armchair Psychologist
Hi Armchair Psychologist,
Just wanted to let you know that your article was really offensive to read. Do you refer to women's genitals as: "gross," "ghasty," "smelly," or otherwise? Humans are not perfect, each of us is different and you should emphasize this. I hope that man finds a partner that will love and accept him rather than tearing him down. Which gender has a whole aisle devoted to their "special" hygiene needs? I can tell you it's not men.
Dear Male Reader,Thank you for your thoughtful feedback to my Armchair Psychologist column. My email response bounced so am writing you here. I am so sorry I offended you. It wasn't my intention. I actually meant to be sardonic and make the writer see how ridiculous she sounded for the harsh language she used to describe her date. I obviously failed at this sneer since you think I meant to be offensive. Many apologies. I'll do better. Have a wonderful day and keep writing us with your thoughts.
- Ubah, The Armchair Psychologist