Playing with Fire: Sylar Brodie, Chicagoan of the Week

Sylar Brodie is at first glance an intimidating guy. His arms, covered in tattoos, hang loose from his self-cut sleeveless shirt when I meet him in his favorite coffee shop, the Wormhole. His hair is in dreads and pulled back in a loose ponytail. Before this interview, I had seen videos of him performing at night –- he swings flaming ropes around himself, echoing the ease and finesse that Bruce Lee exhibits with nunchucks. A beautiful swirl of flames is left in the darkness behind each swipe. Needless to say, I was expecting a high-octane interview with this Rob Zombie lookalike. But within seconds of sitting down with him I saw that this seemingly tough guy is a soft-spoken free spirit with a Seth Rogan chuckle, a gentle handshake, and an affinity for hot tea.

The 29-year-old just celebrated his one-year anniversary of being a full-fledged fire poi performer, the technical term for flame thrower. Brodie has wowed crowds at Exit, Evil Olive, and the occasional park around the city. He grew up just outside Chicago and is stoked to call this city his home, but he likes to say his brain “matured” in Japan, California, and Hawaii. After finishing high school in Franklin Park, Illinois he followed the Marines’ call to Japan and served there until he was 22. He leaned into me and jokingly whispered, “Yeah, I was in the military for a while. I’ll keep quiet about that.” I didn’t probe.

After his military service ended in 2004, Brodie moved to California specifically to live on the streets (literally) and play with his band DPI –- the letters are inked on his arm. Mostly, though, he just wanted to enjoy “total freedom” after the rigid military life. And he hasn’t looked back since.

“Living minimally, organically, that’s what I’m all about. Living on the streets is one way to experience that,” he said through sips of tea. His performances display this philosophy, too. All are entirely improvised: an interpretive dance with fire, if you will.

Brodie’s unassuming glances around the coffee shop and quirky chuckles throughout our chat reveal the self-described “not so social” boy inside the man who admits he’s always craved being the center of attention. First he fueled that passion through music, now with fire poi performance. It was on the streets in Ocean Beach, California where he was introduced to fire poi. He saw a “really cool hippie girl” playing with fire on the beach and a crowd forming around her. He loved the showmanship and connection she had with the crowd. But he didn’t jump into the art of slinging flames just yet. He spent the next few years traveling and playing with his band, spending some time in Hawaii and then heading back to California.

A few years passed and he trekked back to his homeland in Chicago to study culinary arts at Kendall College. (Yes, the man has truly done everything.) Flash forward to March 2010, and Brodie began a career as serious Chicago fire poi performer and instructor. Today he has shows and gives lessons several nights a week. He joked that he doesn’t have the funds to make business cards yet, and he hasn’t gotten around to making a website. But he encourages anyone to contact him on Facebook to ask for a lesson or to get information about upcoming shows. He’s not interested in making this a typical business, anyway. He just wants to keep doing what he loves.

“I’m broke, but I feel like I’m living my dream,” he laughed. “You only live until you’re 80. So, you should enjoy what you’re doing. It’s never about the money for me.”

When he’s not performing or giving lessons, you can probably find Brodie at the Wormhole working on charcoal drawings, his other favorite hobby. And as for most Chicagoans, summer is his prime season; he spends free time in Millennium Park at free concerts or relaxing at Oak Street Beach. But his favorite part of Chicago is no location or event. It’s the people.

“It’s a close-knit community here. I could walk across this coffee shop and start talking to people at that table, and we’ll have a nice conversation. You don‘t get that in most cities,” he said. “You get the sense of family here.”

About Cheryl Thomas

Cheryl grew up in rural northern Indiana, where everyone is somehow related to a farmer and horse and buggy stations are in the Wal-Mart parking lots. She moved to Chicago a few months after graduating from IU and has since fallen hopelessly in love with the city. She likes trying new deep dish places, exploring used bookstores and dive bars, chatting with strangers on public transit, and all sorts of writing - especially fiction and playwriting.

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