Words By- Matthew Spence:
There’s an episode of the show Futurama, where the main character Fry (not Frylock from Aqua Teen Hunger Force) makes a deal to swap hands with the Robot Devil to be able to play the holophoner better. Why mention this, (well, I love Futurama but also) because CT native and creative entrepreneur Sydney Bell has the kind-of talent many people would trade their shit for. At 24 years old, she’s a fashion designer with her brand (Syd University), a tattoo artist, painter, graphic designer, photographer, and possibly many other creative endeavors that may come in the future she’ll tackle. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s secretly Batman in her free time. Maybe she’s been Tame Impala all along. Short and Sweet: She’s all-around amazing.
Me being the lucky fanboy I am, I had the chance to meet with her at a nice homely cafe in New Haven…..was the original plan. But shit happens, and we ended up video chatting. Which wasn’t an issue. It was just as dope. Her personality immediately popped at the beginning of our over an hour and 30-minute convo. As we discussed her upbringing, how she got into every single outlet, how she balances, and then some. Throughout I couldn’t help but admire and crack a smile listening to her discuss her passions with gloss and ponder on how can she perfectly answer each question as if she doesn’t want to undersell her genuine love for what she does. Sitting on my bed, as she sits on her couch, 10 minutes into the convo I realized. She’s like the human embodiment of why I do what I do. Walking creativity that sparks the drive of others to create as well. [Note, we technically met before this, at a Punq-Noire event she walked in on me finishing up using the bathroom. I didn’t know who she was at the time but she remembers that moment as well and we both laughed like friends at a lunch table when I mentioned it]
Born and raised in New Haven, CT, with Jamaican parents, Sydney’s artistic path wasn’t the immediate jump to the ideal profession she’s doing now. Bits and crumbs were there, as she used to draw a lot as a “little hobby” as a kid, but she didn’t take it seriously until high school. Syd, wanted to be (drum roll please……) a basketball player (like many of us) but that dream went out the window due to unforeseeable reasons: “Yup, I gave up that dream, I stopped growing and I realized I’m not gonna be any taller than 5’4 and that was gonna be a big inconvenience in the league so I let go of that”, she chuckles a bit when discussing her cut short career.
By the time high school [Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School] rolled around, she wanted to take a direction involving another form of art, Architecture. “In one of my classes, we were learning about different art careers and I just had this big dream of being an architect. Half of the colleges, I was applying to was as an architect. That would’ve been my creative career if I went to school for art”. (She still would love to work with architecture in the future)
However, life hits, and plans change. We all know how it is. For many people in high school getting ready to graduate, we switch our dreams to something more conventional, Sydney is no different, she ended up going to college for “engineering or some shit” but decided to take a leap of faith and leave school to focus on other things. Creative careers are risky without a doubt, if they weren’t, everyone would be going after them without hesitation. However, she was willing to put all of her effort and attention into her true ambition despite whatever doubt comes from her move. “At the time, I went to school in 2016, and before, art careers were looked down upon. Like it’s very silly to do anything like that after high school like it wasn’t logical. But you know I realized I can have a creative future as long as I’m passionate as much as the doctors and lawyers you know what I mean”.
Coming from a Jamaican household myself, I felt where she was coming from, so I couldn’t help but ask how did they [her family] take the news of her leaving school (being in college for 2 1/2 years) to pursue a creative field. Of course, backlash from her mom and family was inevitable: “She was pissed. It took her a while, we had our downfall at first, but I just had to prove myself really to my whole family. Cause you know everyone was against what I was doing cause it wasn’t traditional. I just had to prove to everyone that it could be possible”. This a great example of being honest with yourself is important for your happiness. Everyones’ journey is different, school isn’t for everyone, and loosening the idea of “it needs to be for everyone” should be more welcomed. “I was distancing myself from school ’cause I genuinely felt it’s because I didn’t have any space for creativity, like none. I felt really confined”.
But that time away from school wasn’t wasted, it was for the best. As she’d spend that time going between tattooing, painting, and designing clothes (it’s like the Lord of the Rings Trilogy of creativity). First up on her path: Tattooing. It being the main priority at a first, she developed her chops through the process of “10,000 hours”. Starting around 2018, she’d start tattooing based on a “random” suggestion from a friend. Soon she’d take this as a casual one-time thing and dissect the possibilities of how far she can go with it. “I bought a tattoo gun off of Amazon, and it wasn’t good equipment but it was good for me to practice while I was at UCONN. I literally was tattooing all of my friends in my dorm and no one knew, after a while my friend told me to go check out a [tattoo] shop around the corner from us cause his sister worked there. Basically, I went in there, and they wanted me to come in as an apprentice and I didn’t want to come in and learn from anyone, then come in with skills, I didn’t wanna come in with knowledge. That’s how I felt.”.
With the amount of practice and work she was putting in to earn her spot in how she felt was more fitting, it required a cool 80s movie montage with kick-ass music. Determination is a word that doesn’t even do her justice, it’s an understatement of an understatement. “I was doing free tattoos, bumped it up to $25 and finally I went to the shop and said ‘I’m ready for a spot'”. Still there, she hopes to expand but waiting for the right moment to pop up, no rush is needed as her studio needs to be able to tackle all of her outlets. Ready to take that step, but waiting for when it’s right to move on.
Yet, the world of tattooing has some issues that she wanted to acknowledge. Explaining the struggle of trying to get your license to tattoo: “It’s so difficult just because they make it so closed off to the world.” Going from shop to shop, looking for apprenticeships but constantly getting turned and being denied to tattoo at people’s shops until reaching the shop she’s at now. Putting in her thousand hours and going through the process of “paying dues”. “You know they [the shops in general] just make it hard for really people of color, but you know, they’re a lot of activists right now. Fighting and sending people the info. Idk people are on the peoples’ side”. But rejection wasn’t stopping her: “It wasn’t stopping a lot of my friends who didn’t have it, they were still practicing and I also knew that tattooing is a skill. You just practice.”
Time to flip a coin between discussing: Syd University and her paintings/artwork. [Flips a Quarter] Syd University it is! Originally called “One of One” its name changed around last June, and her clothing brand came from love while changing her pace of creative scenery. “I was just talking about how I wanted to make clothes. Cause I was already tattooing for 3 years, I’ve always painted, drawn, you know little stuff like that, graphic design, photography, but I wanna tap into something else cause I’ve always loved fashion. Everyone around me was trying to get into clothes so I was like ‘let me try to.’ “Comfortable, Unisex, and eye-catching” is how she describes the brand’s style. School/collegiate aesthetics colliding with streetwear to great harmony. From shirts to pants to sweaters to hoodies, every single stitch you see when you scroll down its IG page makes you say to yourself: “Damn I want that”. I’m still praying to every deity that we’ll get Syd University sweater vests and cardigans. Its dopeness makes sense, her style icons include Aaliyah and she describes her individual style as comfortable as well [also describes her style as baggy and stomach out: “I’m one of those girls”], so it makes sense it would turn out the way it has.
Syd University is more than a clothing brand but an idea of many. As Sydney wants to expand Syd Uni into big things for not only her but for many other creatives: “I eventually want Syd University to be like an actual school. Be a safe space for people who wanna do art, create as much as they want, and showcase whatever they’re doing. We’ll see though, I’m more of a ‘here and now type of person. So whatever happens, I have no idea”. Making clothes is an art form to her and rightfully so, not every motherfucker can make a pair of pants. However, she’s trying her best to get a stronger hold of the business aspect. “I’m so lazy when it comes to the business aspect of things and anything in terms of structure and organization stuff. Like I’d make 20 pieces and won’t take a pic of one of them, I’m more into being in the moment”. But it’s not a slow burn as some of her clothes are in a local store in Brooklyn, NY.
Plus, her moms’ peers are aware of it on their own: “Even people my moms’ age telling her about me, so that happening, ‘alright she has some’. She just had to gain some faith”. Even though things seem to be looking for the best, she’s still taking things slow and letting things naturally come her way. “I’m open to taking any opportunity that comes my way, so if all those things come my way I’m down. Like I’m just creating as much as I can so I could catch the right eye, but I don’t think every opportunity is a great one so you know I don’t feel like I need to be in a rush”. Every second is a learning process, which is fitting. “Another reason why the name came together, it’s my interpretation of Education and you know building a career from my own education”
While waiting, she’ll be painting to kill time productively. It’s a way of mental relief while also bringing something new to the world. Her process you may wonder: I try to stare at the canvas [for like 3 days], imagine what could be there, then I’d draw it and then begin painting. I always draw first, except when I’m doing Abstract Paintings. That’s been really difficult for me because I’m like a real perfectionist.” Now, as a casual fan of art, I enjoy the overall structure of whatever piece on a surface level (Colors, saturation, etc) so I’d be lying if every painting I saw, I’d see the overall symbolism in what the artist was trying to convey. It made me wonder, how she feels about her interpretation of her work versus the people: “All my paintings have meaning to me from my viewpoint but I want people to have their own meanings”.
Her art is for everyone: she’s not hoping to gatekeep her clothing. She’s not necessarily focused on who she wants to wear her clothing (she wouldn’t mind seeing Drake wear her clothes) or get tattooed by her. She’s letting everyone get their own meaning from her paintings, even her photography career started by wanting to work with anyone who needed help. “Linking up with everyone in New Haven county, like West Haven, and stuff like that. Everyone local that I could get to and try to find people who were underrated who needed more eyes on them, up-in-coming models, and people who already had eyes on them. I was doing more for the people than myself”.
(She also worked for Lifetouch and got fired for taking too long because she wanted to make sure the photos for the kids were actually good. The hero we deserve, but seriously give her, her own holiday. I can’t express how many times Lifetouch fucked me over during school picture day)
Handling so many stations and wearing so many hats, must lead to a lot of creative roadblocks and mental malnourishment. How does she handle creative doubt? “I don’t really have too much doubt, but I get into funks often, and when that happens, I just let myself be in the funk. Even when I was younger as an artist. Being in a funk is inevitable, you’re not gonna be happy all the time you know. So when your creativity levels are going down, don’t try to force it [up]”. Fair assessment. Rest assured though, music is a good factor in that upliftment in creativity while working: “I’m at my most peaceful when I listen to Neo-Soul, Jazz and R&B/Soul music I know (Robert Glasper is one of the main artists). I like a mixture of things. That’s what kind of puts me in my muse the most. Even, I know for a fact I can work with Classical Music. Cause in my art class in high school, they’d only play Classical Musical and I got a lot of shit done.”
Now, what’s next up for her, well let her explain: “I’ll really tap into videos so that might end up replacing whatever I’m doing now”. Elaborating, “Little short films, Syd University themed you know have as many people involved as possible. I want there to be multiple films. I know that visuals make everything better. Film has always been interesting to me, it just always seemed and appeared to be so tedious and hard to learn, but for some reason, I’m at a point where I wanna learn. I’ve never had this urge to do video until recently, I told you I get these urges”. Jumping from project to project, whether a sporadic urge or not, Sydney Bell is a talented artist who helps exemplify the meaning of “You can do it too” like Pharrell Williams. DIY and creating waves for the next person to follow suit while highlighting how Gen-Z is simply: ain’t nothing to fuck with (Shout-out to Wu-Tang Clan)