“It’s my favorite time of day.”
Sam scrolls through his iPhone, taps the song he wants and turns the volume all the way up. Thrashing pop-punk guitar riffs come blaring through a mini-speaker he’s rigged to dangle from the rearview mirror of his old minivan. A big grin comes over his face as the song starts, and he belts out the lyrics to a song he’s heard 100 times. It’s a tune by The Arrivals called “Simple Pleasures in America”: A friend came up to me, and she said, “Why’s it always gotta be a sad sad song, someone’s falling apart. It’s always not enough money and too much heart.”
“This song makes me want to smile and cry,” Sam says somewhat sheepishly. “In fact I’m tearing up right now.”
I like to go that extra mile to turn your frown into a smile, and everybody gets their little piece of the pie.
Sam could pass for a teenager if not for his deep laugh lines and slightly world-weary gaze. He may be one of the only guys in their late 20s still openly passionate about a genre of music that lost its cool factor more than a decade ago. He’s the somewhat older version of the band guy every girl my age swooned over in high school, with his spiked, bleached-blond hair and torn-up jeans held together with band pins, and the word PUNK scribbled on the butt of both pairs he owns.
These, along with a pair of ratty sneakers and some art supplies, are some of the only things Sam owns. When you live in a van you have to travel light.
Sam North, better known now by his adopted artist name, Sammy thrashLife, couldn’t seem happier to be homeless. He’s unusually optimistic these days.
That is, unusual for him.
In December 2012, Sam attempted suicide after being kicked out of rehab for the third time. He’d been self-medicating for years, managing the effects of his mental illness — he’s been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a condition characterized by instability in relationships, problems with self-image, lack of impulse control and brief psychotic episodes — mostly with heroin, though he also used other drugs. He’d finally decided to seek help and get clean, but he couldn’t stop using. He struggled to change his negative outlook, which fueled his addiction.
“My natural reaction is, like, f— everything. F— the world,” he says. “It’s a conscious choice to look at something terrible and say, ‘Here’s the good that could come out of it.’ I have to believe that. I had to adopt that attitude in order to not die.”
Sam says he started seeking treatment during his last semester at Georgetown Law. He somehow managed to graduate, he says, even though he didn’t go to any of his classes, barely studied and spent only a month cramming for his finals with borrowed library books because he didn’t own any textbooks. Instead of college parties and group study sessions, he spent his school years shooting heroin, going on tour with his band and putting out records through the label he started. He loved music, but it wasn’t enough to keep him from using.
In his telling, he was a “miserable and cynical little s—head.” He had friends who loved him, but they avoided being around him for too long. The people who knew him during that period of his life remember him as selfish and erratic. His constant negativity was draining — for him especially.
It took him a long time to see life differently. Where the 12 step-style of recovery, based on religion and conformity, wasn’t working, art therapy did. It was, in fact, the first thing that really clicked. After grudgingly participating at first, he finally embraced it.
And since leaving rehab and setting out as an artist, Sam’s had to adapt to a new reality. People like him. They actually want to be around him. “People across the board trust me, and are sweet to me, and they used to hate my guts,” he says. “It takes some adjusting, but it’s much nicer.”
He has no formal training and claims to know nothing about art. He’s most often told his style is similar to well-known neo-expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who gained notoriety in the ’70s in New York City’s emerging hip-hop and street art scene. It’s a fitting comparison, but Sam hates being told he’s like anyone else, hates conformity. He painted Snowflakes Anonymous to express his frustration with how he was expected to go through his recovery like any other addict.
His art often makes a bold statement about how great he is, like Another Painting By My Favorite Artist, or how awful he is, like Nothing’s Good Enough Because I’m Not. His self-esteem varies moment to moment, one of the more prominent effects of his borderline personality disorder.
Although Sam says he’s doing much better managing his symptoms, he can’t always control the doubts and self-loathing. A recent Facebook post illustrates his frustration:
“It kinda figures that in a week when I’ve experienced some of my best emotional highs, I’d also have my first episode/freakout in moths [sic]. And then have another. And another. The phrase that keeps coming to mind is MENTAL ILLNESS HOT STREAK.”
Sam’s openness with his art, and with perfect strangers, could be off-putting, the way he lets his guard down almost instantly and chats easily about the darkest parts of his life. He’s open about his mental illness and drug addiction. About his issues with women and his need to be accepted and adored. About his long journey to happiness and the brief psychotic episodes that sometimes stall his progress. “I’m mentally ill,” Sam often says with a little dismissive shrug, usually when he knows he’s said something a little shocking and wants to acknowledge that he knows it isn’t normal.
But Sam’s brutal honesty, always with a dose of narcissism and boyish charm, makes it easy to be comfortable around him, and to trust him (even knowing that borderlines often lie and manipulate). It’s a rare trait, and one that leaves an impact on almost everyone he meets. He gives so much of himself, both through his art and the short biographical stories he includes with each piece — which is exactly why it’s selling.
“People aren’t just buying my art,” he says. “They’re buying me.”
He’s already sold more than enough prints and originals to fund his one-man art tour for several months. After his show at the Silver Cow, a new beer and wine bar in Riverside, he’s got one last stop in Delray Beach before heading north. Beyond that, he’s not making any definite plans. He knows how crazy it sounds to rely on his art to make a living, and he’s OK with that.
“I’ve probably got to be a little insane to believe it will work, but I am a little insane,” he says. “The reason I’m going to be a famous, successful artist is because I don’t make this s–t to be a famous, successful artist. I make this s–t because I f—ing have to.”