A picture can tell a thousand words. For Art Smith, however, his storytelling medium lies in something a bit more specific: bar logos. Art is the founder and lead creator behind Gay Barchives, an archival project focused on preserving the logos and stories from gay bars in Atlanta, around the country, and overseas. With a goal of creating the largest archive of its kind, Art is now a few years into his grand undertaking, having reconstructed the logos of over 1,200 bars and nightclubs from 49 states, with a smattering of overseas bars also.
The project started small a few years ago.
“At the end of 2019 was having a conversation with a bar owner from Atlanta who used to own one of the most iconic bars that ever existed here,” Art told Georgia Voice. “I happened to be wearing their t-shirt, and she asked me to design a t-shirt to commemorate the 45th anniversary of their opening.”
That bar was Backstreet, the revered three-level center of Atlanta LGBTQ life — home to landmark drag queens like Mr. Charlie Brown — that closed in 2004. Reconstructing the Backstreet logo spurred Art’s mission. His work for the bar spread through word of mouth and slowly, he began to expand the network of bars he associated with, incorporating new discoveries into his growing collection.
Stumbling across bars and the people associated with them is, for Art, a natural process, hinged on the memories and stories of former visitors.
“It involves a lot of different kinds of searching,” he said. “The first thing you have to do is to find out about the bar existing somehow. So, somebody mentions, ‘Oh, I used to live in Greenville, North Carolina, and I remember a bar called Chaos,’ and then you start looking for information on Chaos, because now you have a name and a city. And then, over a period of time, as you learn about it through the course of reading the articles [on it], you may see another name of a bar like ‘Oh, yeah, there was also a bar called Oasis down the street.’ So, it just kind of built organically.”
Art uses a variety of resources to dig up the gay bar history, like Mapping the Gay Guides, a virtual map created by Dr. Amanda Regen and Eric Gonzaba from Bob Damron’s Address Books, a series of gay travel guides running from the 1960s until 2021.
With over a hundred podcast episodes and a hundred YouTube videos, Art has found his place as a storyteller of this slice of queer life, one that is not only about keeping the memories of these former locales alive but about bringing together queer people today in remembrance and celebration.
Speaking on the community he has created through his archival work, one spanning states, ages, and all walks of life, Art described how the little things make his work worth it.
“Just yesterday on one of the posts in my Facebook group, I get a message thanking me for posting a picture of a trick card bars used to give,” he said. “A trick card is a card the bars used to give out that was basically a business card. And on one side, it had the information about the bar. And on the other side, it had some kind of quirky little phrase. And so [the user] commented on there, ‘Thank you for posting this picture of print cards. I’d forgotten about that part of our history.’”
For so many queer people, especially those who grew up decades ago when being gay wasn’t nearly as accepted by wider society, bars weren’t simply a place to sit and have a few drinks with friends. They were sanctuaries of connection and self-expression, where queer people could enjoy a few hours unafraid and unconditionally accepted, surrounded by people who shared their same experience. They were places of collective exuberance in times of loss, pain, and unacceptance – harsh realities that Art acknowledges but hopes that his work can steer people away from and towards something happier.
“Most archival records are talking about all these negative things and all these things that happened in our community, one way or another people being incarcerated for being gay, losing their jobs — things like that,” he said.”
For the older visitors of his Barchives site, Art hopes that reconnecting with the logos and stories of the bars they once frequented will bring back that special sense of unabashed, empowered joy. For the younger consumers of his content, Art wishes for them to piece together a fuller, more nuanced picture of what gay life was like back then, and how those bars — like the history-making Stonewall — paved the way towards queer acceptance.
“These places are what made it possible to get to where we are today,” he said, “and have the kind of freedoms that we have.”
Hunter Buchheit is an Atlanta-based writer who covers LGBTQ leaders, LGBTQ rights, Georgia politics, and issues affecting young people. His work has appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Them, and Teen Vogue.