Smile Politely

Philosophizing with the Smiler

It’s not often someone tells you that you changed his life. It has only happened to me once. The person sat across the table outside of Esquire on a normal, sunny Thursday afternoon. He wore cut-off jeans and a green “Lollapalooza 2006” t-shirt and a half of a pillowcase as a headband. He had a long, messy beard and tattoos. He knowingly and happily breaks the law, regularly. But it doesn’t matter because, as he tells me five minutes after meeting him, his “goal in life is to save the world.”

Let me start at the beginning. After journalism school, I started reporting on graffiti. I wrote profiles on graffiti artists in Chicago and Champaign. I interviewed several different taggers to immerse myself into the culture. I took calls at 4:00 a.m., met kids in dark basements, followed them up buildings, and asked them about their lives. The year or so that I spent working on the project was … interesting.

One day, a friend told me about his friend who was enamored with a particular tag. A smiling face, sketched on a FedEx box or a street sign. There were hundreds of them all over C-U. Johnny Storm called it “the Smiler” and started collecting them. Whenever he saw a new one, he took a picture and posted it to a Google Map he curated.

I interviewed Johnny for Smile Politely. I thought it would be an interesting study of the other side of the culture. He wasn’t an artist, but rather a curator of the art. I wrote the interview, posted it on the website, and thought nothing much of it.

Two or three years later, I received an email. It said my name had come up in an interview. It said the subject wanted to meet me. It said he read my interview with Johnny and was so excited to see his creation talked about. It said he was moved by the article.

I agreed to meet with him. If this really was the Smiler I wanted to talk with him. There were journalistic opportunities to explore. And it didn’t hurt that he stroked my ego more than a little bit. After telling everyone I knew where I was going and how long I would be gone (you never can be too careful with these things), I made my way to Esquire.

I had no idea what to expect, or even what he looked like, but when I first saw him I knew it was him. And I knew my suspicions were sound when I saw his black notebook with the Smiler scrawled on the cover.

He didn’t call his tags the Smiler, although he seemed to enjoy the name. It was just his self portrait. He told me he looked like his father, who drew smiley faces. “He draws them like this,” he said, while he sketched it out, “but I have more artistic flare.” And he drew a perfect grinning Smiler, canine teeth exposed.

His enthusiasm was infectious. Soon we dove into philosophy and religion and science over beers. Johnny Storm came by and added his own ideas into the mix. We discussed souls and money and physics. Names of famous writers were thrown around, quotes and book titles. A modern day salon.

Johnny and the Smiler hit it off, and before long the Smiler left for an appointment. Johnny, always up for an adventure, tagged along. My journalistic instincts begged me to go with them, but I had other things to do. After they left, I sat and had another beer to digest what just happened. I have no belief in fate or destiny, no real religious or spiritual sense, but something drew us all together. Somehow the three of us could sit and discuss life over a beer.

All photos courtesy of Johnny Storm.

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