On May 12, at 9:31 a.m., Brian Tait opened a small, homemade notebook and drew a small picture of a cigarette.
Normally at that time, he would have smoked a cigarette.
But Tait was trying to quit, as he had tried to do many times before. This time, he was serious. This time, he had a deadline — the impending birth of his daughter.
Three days later, Janie Wren was born.
In the following weeks and months, the 38-year-old artist and part-time stay-at-home dad drew cigarettes after meals, while paying bills, while taking a break from remodeling his home or painting. He drew them on shopping lists, envelopes, napkins and scraps of paper. He drew them any time he would normally smoke, and sometimes when he just needed to do something with his hands.
In this unconventional way, Tait quit smoking entirely. In the months since May 12, he estimates he's drawn hundreds of cigarettes. He hasn't smoked any.
Tait started smoking when he was 15, and he was quickly hooked. He was a skateboarder and street artist as a kid. He and his friends sought out “old guy stuff” — Pall Mall non-filters, Marlboro Reds.
“Branding and stuff got me pretty early,” Tait said.
Through his 20s and 30s, he continued to smoke. He worked as a professional sign painter (he's painted the signs for the Boiler Room, Big Brain Tattoos and the Nomad Lounge, among others) and as an artist. Smoking was a break when he was stuck, a treat when he liked how things were going, a way to enjoy the weather when he was inside the studio on a nice day.
During that time, he also drank. He was a self-described wild guy, occasionally out of control.
But life changed. He started to date a woman who wanted a family. Tait, who has a 14-year-old daughter, wanted another child, too.
About a year and a half ago, he gave up drinking. He quit cold turkey, without even the assistance of pen and paper. He knew that cigarettes should come next. But no one who knew him knew him as a non-smoker, he said.
“I've always been personified as this working-class artist that chain smokes or drinks two pots of coffee a day, which is true,” he said.
He may have been a smoking artist, but he was an artist first. At the same time Tait was thinking of quitting smoking (and the same time the ever-nearing arrival of baby Janie was causing him to mull quitting more seriously), he was also wanting to refine his drawing skills, which after years of computer-aided work didn't feel as sharp as they once did.
And with that, quitting smoking became an art project.
“Everything at some point is technical ability,” he said. “It's the constant over and over that makes good people great.”
So he drew, and drew, and drew.
He drew unsmoked cigarettes, partially smoked cigarettes, packs of cigarettes. He drew them all the time — after meals, around the house, while waiting in line to apply for a building permit — and then less often, and then, not at all, though he still runs across the occasional scrap of paper with a cigarette sketch.
Laura Krajicek, who works with smoking cessation patients at Methodist Hospital, had never heard of anyone quitting cigarettes that way before.
She had heard of people quitting through prayer or chewing gum or wearing patches. She knew of people who smoked while driving who took to holding a pen instead of a cigarette while on the road.
“You can't quit driving, so you have to find something else to do with your hand,” she said.
She heard from one woman who repainted the smoke-stained walls in every room in her house in an effort to remain smoke-free.
“I've got to say, I've never heard of drawing a cigarette, but good for him,” said Krajicek.
While Tait's method was unconventional, Krajicek said it also had one key thing in common with other successful smoking cessation techniques — he found a way to fill the time normally spent smoking with something else.
Tait doesn't need so much to fill the time anymore.
Baby Janie came, and Tait has been busy with her since. He also shares a studio space at 26th and Harney Streets with several other artists, including some younger ones whom he mentors. The giant space, which Tait refers to as “the shop,” includes a stage, homemade skateboarding ramp and various studios, and he's converting part of the area into a gallery. He began work on a stay-at-home dad blog, and on a couple of other projects, too, and Tait found the time previously reserved for smoking filled with other duties.
Tait's girlfriend, Jessica Brown, said it's been a while since she even ran across one of the cigarette drawings that not so long ago seemed to be all over their home. The smell of smoke that clung to his clothes is gone, which is just as well as she doesn't think her heightened post-pregnancy sense of smell would do very well with it anyway. She's used to her new, non-smoking boyfriend, and she thinks it will stick.
Tait is an all-or-nothing kind of guy, Brown said, and she's not surprised that he's stuck to his experiment.
“He's extreme,” she said. “He keeps it interesting.”