Alex Smetsky: Loving Chaos
By Ash Hoden
Sometimes it’s best to let a man speak for himself:
“If you look at almost any one of my art pieces, one thing that I love to do is overlay a ton of graffiti. So if you look at the colors it’s just a bunch of graffiti overlaid, but it still can be found inside this compact little circle. It’s always been that way with me. I love watching chaos. There’s just something about my life, I love watching chaos. I looove watching chaos. I love watching chaos. I love watching people break down. I love watching people react in an uncomfortable situation. I love it. I love it. It turns me on so much. I’m so passionate about watching, just, destruction of mental, physical… Any kind of breakdown. Yet it’s still constructively held within its boundaries. It turns me on so much, I can’t tell you.”
It’s difficult to say whether painting is Smetsky’s day job, or whether his day job is being a doorman at a night club — effectively making it a night job. He speaks equally passionately about both. He’s a passionate guy. Regardless of which job is his primary, if indeed one takes precedence over the other, painting is what he does by day. He quickly transitions from the chaos of his art to the chaos of his night job. “When I do the door and I see a thousand people lined up just to get in, and I got six, seven guys out there… There’s a thousand of them. They could fuckin’ eat us alive. But they’re still there. They’re so rowdy and so crazy and they still just want to drink or whatever… Even when I close the doors and say that nobody’s going to get in without doing bottle service, and they hate me and they scream at me. I had bottles thrown at me, I had people tryinna fight me. I had all this shit.”
“Oh man! Every, fuckin’, day. But I love it. Jus’ the other day I was talkin’ to the head of security, and I tell him, “You know, me and you are complete fuckin’ nutjobs. He goes, ‘Why?’ I’m like, ‘We’re willingly going to the fucking frontline of just jumping into the flames. Willingly! Nobody’s even pushing us. We’re willingly saying, ‘I want to do this job. Like, I want to be on the front line of being hated, disgusted…”
Smetsky loves the controlled chaos of being a doorman with the same intensity that he creates it in his paintings. And to be honest, when he explains why, I am forced to set aside prejudices.
“I’ve met so many genuinely amazing people by doing this job. Because, being the first person of contact in the place where… You have to understand, celebrities, artists, anybody that’s anybody goes to what I do, and they have to see me first. They introduce themselves, I introduce myself. Of course I judge people by how they look and everything, but to me it’s more about energy. If I feel your energy and I like your energy and I want your energy inside my place, then you’re coming in. You might not be the most handsome or the most beautiful, but if I like your energy you’re coming in. And vice versa. I’ve rejected super-tall beautiful models — groups of ‘em — just because they have skanky energy. I love that — that first point of contact. You introduce yourself, and you don’t know who they are, they don’t know who you are. There’s a story to be told and there’s a future that’s going to happen. That whole thrill of meeting somebody and not knowing what adventures could come out of it is such a turn on. You never know! You just meet (he snaps his finger) and the possibilities are endless. How could I help you? How could you help me? What could we do with each other? Maybe we’re going to have a gangbang with like a bunch of fuckin’ strippers. Maybe we’re gonna have a fuckin’ discussion. Maybe we’re gonna go and get wasted and get into a fight with somebody. You never know what story is going to happen. I have so many stories it never ends.”
Smetsky was born in Moscow. When he was seven his mother and stepfather immigrated to the United States. “We came here during the switchover from communism to democracy in Russia. When we left, Russia was at the bottom of the barrel. I remember the dollar back then was like a brick of gold. It was literally a dream come true to escape that poverty. To come to the promised land in a sense.” With nothing they arrived in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, surviving through determination and basic government support. He remembers little from his life in Russia. But he has vivid memories of what it was like to become settled in the city, attributing much to the efforts of his mother.
“My mom’s a fucking beast. There’s nobody I’ve ever met in my life that works as hard as this woman does. I mean, she would stay up days and nights, just working, putting the time in, going to school… She came here as a professional pianist. In Russia she was kind of a big deal. But playing the piano here is as good as being a street sweeper. Nobody gives a shit.” Forced to adapt, she turned her attention to radiology, putting herself through school and climbing the corporate ladder in a leading radiology firm. When Smetsky was growing up, his stepfather no longer in the picture, they lived a sparing existence. “She always was and always will be my number one inspiration in terms of like, ‘Why can’t you go and do something else and hustle harder. Why? There’s no such thing as a day off. You’re not allowed to have a day off. If you’re having a day off that means you’re not doing shit with your life. What the fuck is a television? I don’t have a television. I mean I physically do, but it’s not plugged in. It’s just there for the aesthetics of the apartment. If you have time to watch TV, if you have time to play video games, that means you’re not investing in your life. Go out there and fucking grind and grab it, take whatever you can and make the most of it. Invest in yourself.”
Becoming accustomed to the new language and the new social climate at school required much effort as well. After a bad experience at a Catholic private school — involving schoolyard fights, conflicts with teachers, racial tension — he was relieved to be enrolled in a more diverse public school. I ask what he liked better about public school. “Everything. A) there’s way more races. B) there’s way more culture and way more everything. You’ve got the Asians, the Hispanic, the black, the Arabic…There’s just so many different cultures that were in there. It was so amazing.”
In middle school he discovered tagging. When he discusses this discovery, I ask if he thinks his artistic abilities came from his mother. Yes and no. His paternal grandfather was also a highly regarded artist in Russia, and when Smetsky was a child they shared a strong bond. “We were glued together and he would always make me paint and everything. But the crazy part [is that] when he passed away something inside of me just sparked and I started doing art. I kind of feel as if he passed away and now he’s inside of me. Like he woke that part of me up and I’m kinda possessed by him every time I paint. Because once he passed away, I just got so balls deep into it that it became my life. [Tagging] was the fire that started burning and then the whole grandfather incident was the gas that was poured on top of it. That’s when I went balls deep into it. I would go around and I might have a little marker. I would just write my name or some bullshit graffiti tag I would have at that point. This is before I was balls deep in graffiti.”
What was it about graffiti?
“I fell in love. Letters. Scriptive letters. Bubble letters. Straight letters. Block letters. You name it. Just letters, lettering… How do you take a name or a word and turn it into something bigger? How do you make it into an art form? Then I started understanding the whole graffiti concept and culture, and I started tagging up the neighborhood. Soon after that a gentleman came into my life. He was like the biggest bully in the neighborhood. All of a sudden he appears at my school. Back then I started becoming the cool kid in school. Like, I used to hang out with all of the coolest kids and all of a sudden he appeared. I’m like, ‘Fuck, why’s he in my school and shit?’ But at that point I also used to look up to him because he was one of the biggest graffiti artists in the neighborhood. He used to climb the biggest rooftops and everything. We started talking and bonding and before you know it we were inseparable. We became like brothers. And he was the most reckless motherfucker I’ve ever met. There was no chill or brake-factor in that human being. He was just an animal. Between the fighting and the graffiti, he was just ruthless. He loved the climbing aspect of it also. It was just a daily thing. Paint and paint and paint, and run from cops; paint and paint and paint, and run from people that owned the apartment. Paint and paint. Every single rooftop on the F-line, a lot of things on the N-line tracks… This is a little secret and I don’t want to brag about it, but I would say about 60% of the rooftops in Chinatown — when you’re coming off the bridge, like the Manhattan bridge when you cross over — I would say about 60% of those spots we originated. Nobody climbed on top of them before we did. And some of them were sub-parts, like climbing off the roof onto a balcony or whatever. But that was our life. That was my crack cocaine. That was my heroin.”
At the end of Smetsky’s senior year in high school he dropped out, a decision he describes as instinctual. “I just hated everything about it. It was an institution that I did not fit into. I guess I was in tune with my instincts since I was a little kid. I just never went against them. If it says no, it’s a no. That’s it, I’m done. Of course, I’m a survivalist, so if I need to make money or whatever or do something against my will, I’ll do it. But at that point, it just told me straight up, ‘No, just get the fuck outta here.’ I had a job and I was makin’ more than most of my friends, so I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna hustle. I’m gonna get my GED, I’m gonna go to F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology), and I’m gonna crush it there.’ While I had my job and I was makin’ a great amount of money, I took a year off just to hustle. You know, live life, party, get drunk, do all that shit — as if I wasn’t doing it beforehand. I got my GED, I got into F.I.T., and I started a year later. So everything I was going to do, I did. Minus the high school diploma. And surely enough, I was the first person in 35 years who got suspended from F.I.T.”
The suspension was a combination of Sparks — the first energy drink with alcohol — two other gentlemen from Bensonhurst, their cultural discrepancies I.R.T. the greater social climate of the school, elevators, and their compulsion to jump up and down in one. After a couple of years at F.I.T. Smetsky again set off on his own. In describing his decision to leave, he recalls one confrontation with a teacher. She assigned him the task of graphically representing a legal concept. He chose habeas corpus.
“It was the hardest thing to visually portray. I’m like, ‘How the fuck do I portray habeas corpus in a visual format without it being words words words words?’ So all of a sudden it clicked in my head. I took a Monopoly card — a Go To Jail card — and I Photoshopped the words off and I wrote, “Go to jail…” And I think it said, “No trial. No chance.” Something like that. Very down to the point. And then on the bottom of the Monopoly card there’s a copyright. So I made my copyright say, “Habeas corpus.” I made it just a few words, right down to the point. With the image of the guy being yanked to jail. So that was my presentation. I gave it to her and she gave me a D. I was like, ‘Ok, I guess maybe I haven’t put that much effort into it.’ I took it for what it is. Then, when we were actually showing our work… One projects, two projects, three projects, four projects, all these projects are being showcased on the big screen. Some of them get claps, some of them are just like, ‘Oh, ok, cool.’ My shit comes: people look at it, read it, they absorb it… And I swear to my life I got a standing ovation. People actually got out of their seats and started clapping. They were like, ‘This is the most powerful…’ This fucking [teacher], she gets up, and she goes, ‘Right? It’s so amazing.’ When she fucking said that, the devil inside… I lost my shit! I stand up and I’m like, ‘Wait a second, wait a second. If it’s such an amazing project, why the hell did I get the grade I got? She goes, ‘Oh, lets talk about that after class.’ I’m like, ‘Let’s not talk about it after class. Let’s talk about it in front of the whole class. Guys, I got a D for this project.’ And everybody’s like, ‘Oooh-oooh.’ You know, makin’ a whole scene out of it. And then she was like, ‘Mr Smetsky, let’s talk about this after—‘ ‘No Miss Whatever-her-name-is,’ I’m like, ‘Let’s talk right now in front of everybody. I want to understand why I got a D. This is why I fuckin’ hate this place, you know.’ I just started yelling at her. It was never-ending, my beef with the teachers. Because they tell you you have artistic freedom and then when you present something that’s as free as it gets, or artistic as it gets, then they just shoot you down because you’re not in the borderlines of what they want you to be in. Motherfuckers are standing up and they’re applauding — clearly I did something good.”
Seen in this light, Smetsky is a common sense person who makes common sense pieces that appeal to a common sense crowd. And in the end, regardless of the terrain you’re operating in, it’s simply a matter of having the brass to put yourself out there — unapologetically and as you are.
“Everyday I want to learn something new. If you aren’t excelling then that means you’re stuck. And if you’re just floating there doing nothing, then that’s just a waste of a life. You need to excel everyday, whether it’s spiritually, mentally, physically. Any way shape or form — you need to excel. A little bit, just a little bit, a little bit every day. That’s it. And that’s what makes you today better than you yesterday. Because you learn something and you can share that with somebody. That’s the most amazing gift to the world. You can share your knowledge and they can share theirs. That’s what the world was built upon, you know. But if everybody nowadays is so confined in their own little heads and nobody wants to share nothin’, then how can you possibly excel? To me that’s what life is all about. That’s how it all relates to this.” Smetsky points to the paintings surrounding us in his studio. “This piece is gonna say “Eat Life” and there’s a piece of the fuckin’ canvas that’s being bitten off. The letters are all gonna be a little bit off, and I think I’m gonna do some sprinkles — make it look doughnutty like in the fuckin’ Simpsons maybe. I don’t know. Once again, it’s controlled, it’s confined, but it’s chaotic. I love that.”
I met Smetsky at a pop-up show where one of his paintings was on display, and was eventually sold. I ask him about it.
“That one was basically my interpretation of the misguided females of today’s culture. It’s Jessica Rabbit, who is a big sex symbol — a beautiful woman you know. Growing up a lot of girls wanted to be her for Halloween. She’s like this beautiful girl. But nowadays if you look at the women most girls idolize — it’s the girls on Instagram with the fat asses and, you know, they’re models — they call themselves that. But they’re strippers — they actually have photos in the strip clubs and everything. And I’m never gonna knock the hustle. Listen, I did my share of dirty shit for money. But one thing is doing that and another thing is being a role model. So that piece is basically my execution of how I see women as role models today; how women look up to strippers or hookers. What happened to that girl that’s finishing pharmacy school? Or that girl that just got her law degree? Nobody cares about her, no matter how beautiful she is. Everybody wants to be that big booty girl — the fuckin’ vixen. That’s why the pasties on her ti— On her nipples say, “Daddy’s Girl.” Because they have daddy issues. There’s a lot of subliminal shit in that piece, but, that’s my whole look on it. It’s a dark piece. It’s a very dark piece.”
There was a dark period in Smetsky’s life as well. Following F.I.T. he eventually made his way into real estate, working as an agent. “Words can’t describe to you how miserable I was, but I tried to convince myself that I was happy. For once I fell into the rat race and the whole corporate nine-to-five bullshit lifestyle. First year I thought I was doing the right thing. I was excited, you know. I was bringing my artistic innovation and graphic design skills into it and makin’ my shit very fancy and artsy, and stuff like that. By second year I hated my life. I hated myself. I hated everything about me. I was like, ‘Who are you?’ I knew I was in a dark place.”
This is when Smetsky made a shift. He began to focus more on the luxury real estate market because he found those customers to be easier to work with. They were all business. For him it wasn’t about money, but lifestyle. He also began to meditate and apply The Law of Attraction to his overall approach. “Twenty minutes before I would go into my showings I would sit there in the room by myself, and I would meditate. I would say, ‘I know I’m in the wrong place. I know something is wrong here. I just need you to show me the way outta here. I’m not asking you to guide me through the whole thing, just show me the door and I’ll go through it myself.’ Surely enough my prayers had been answered. I closed a deal. It was one of my best deals so far. As I’m leaving the apartment, shaking his hand, there’s a gentleman walking down the block and he’s like, ‘I need to introduce you to this guy.’ So I said, ‘Ok, let’s go.’ I love meeting people. So, I walk down the stairs and he starts introducing me to this gentleman. The gentleman’s name is Jamie Mulholland.” The renowned club owner was looking for a new apartment and Smetsky showed him a number of options. They never closed a deal but Mulholland was the door he had been asking for.
“He was the coolest dude in the world. He was just so down to earth. Spoke how he wanted to speak, cursing, and he wore jeans with a leather jacket. Just a bad motherfucker, you know. Like, ‘Fuck him, fuck her, hire that, fire that…’ And I was just so, like, inspired by this guy. I was like, ‘I want to be him.’ He was just such a big person. He would invite me all the time, and I wasn’t a big clubhead back then. He took me into Goldbar one time. You know, the owner literally comes out and says, ‘He’s with me.’ This is when it was the hottest club in the city. I was in his world for that one night, but I wanted to get out of there. It wasn’t my scene.”
Even though it wasn’t your scene?
“I just wanted to be him. I wanted to live his life. And it wasn’t my scene probably because I wasn’t a cool guy yet. I mean, I was cool amongst my people but I wasn’t the club cool guy, you know.”
This is when it all clicked for Smetsky. The nightlife was calling. “When you make that internal transition in your head — that you’re going to derail — the world works with you. The Law of Attraction, the energy of the universe just works with you. Your heart already knows. That’s why I say to everybody, ‘Just follow your heart.’ Believe. Right away everything just made the move, like a giant earthquake. I quickly left slash got fired from my real estate company.” Then he spent four months living under the radar in Florida, renovating his mother’s condo by day and studying cocktail recipes at night. He returned to New York, going door to door in search of a bartending gig. Beginning first as a bar-back in a family-owned establishment, he rapidly climbed the ranks, gaining a certain notoriety for his Cocktail-esque performances.
“Back then I used to work out so much that I was about twenty pounds heavier. Just pure shredded muscle. I’d always take my shirt off, put on a show — bachelorettes — make all these fruity cocktails and stuff like that. I would get girls on top of the bar doing body shots with each other. It was a fuckin’ porn scene. Before you know it I’d make these bottles full of mixed drinks and get on top of the bars and feed girls right in their mouths. I’d get girls butt naked and just put— like butt naked, and have two girls lickin’ each other from head to toe. Pour alcohol all over ‘em. The shows I’d put on… And the owners were cool. They would let me do whatever the fuck I wanted behind the bar, you know, because we just loved each other so much. That’s just the way I operated.”
Steady, daily improvement. From bartender to promoter to general manager to doorman, Smetsky applied his maxim. Tagging, graffiti, to painted canvases and hosting his own exhibitions… Work hard, listen to your heart, share your thoughts, and invest in yourself. Do these things and you will find your way in this crazy world. Now thirty, he is at home in his pursuits. Smetsky does what makes him happy, a little bit better every day.