On the bro-saturated, capitalist-catering visual grammar of basic-ass weed smoking

After years of casual smoking left me beholden to whatever dumb pipe my friends had on hand, I decided to buy my own piece. And when I finally did, I realized why it had taken me so long.

Standing in front of all the options at a local head shop, I felt oppressed. Less so because there were so many—though there were—and more because all of them looked terrible, like they belonged in a florescent-lit, cinderblock-walled dorm room or a musty house with decades-old wood paneling and tamped-down shag carpet, which you know, is where most of them would end up.

I didn’t want an elephant (or any other animal whose ass or face I’m supposed to put my mouth on) or a large, lime green plastic party bong or one with the Baltimore Ravens logo on it. Everyone has their own ritual to smoking, and I wanted the thing I smoke with to be part of that ritual, not something I’m embarrassed or flat-out offended by because of what it represents and/or how it looks.

The least annoying piece they had on this day was an all-black piece with a skull etched on it. There was a subtle grace to it: the contrast of the matte and glossy black glass brought to mind the panels of the Rothko Chapel, and I’m always down to think about dying, so the skull motif seemed like an apt memento mori to have around while I fill my lungs with smoke. And this moderately #basic skull piece, at least, didn’t exude the “yo, I got str8 faded at the rager bruh” aura like pretty much everything else in stock.

Still, leaving with a mildly appealing piece reminded me of why walking into the world of weed had been so hard for me for most of my life. Namely, the permeation of the culturally insensitive, often chintzy garbage that littered head shops. Just how did weed culture become nothing but a series of douche chill-inducing bowls, pipes, tapestries, posters and hoodies? Mostly it’s because the trappings of mainstream drug culture are defined by that which defines everything in American culture: the tepid, thoughtless experience of the white bro whose attitude has the power to define what smoking is like, preventing a unique experience with pot for the rest of us.

I call it “the male blaze”—a stoner’s remix of film critic Laura Mulvey’s concept of “the male gaze,” which is described in the “Encyclopedia of Social Theory” as  “the visual and controlling viewpoint associated with hegemonic masculinity and male dominations.”

The male blaze tends to center around pop culture (think, a Yoda or Super Mario Bros. bong), playing to nostalgia (“aww, remember this thing from when we were kids?”) and the worst kind of irony (“Duuude but what if Yoda was a stoner lmao”) at the same time, forces a kind of oppressively “party” atmosphere upon each and every function (encouraged by silly and/or disposable plastic pipes and bongs), and a particularly dim-witted brand of cultural appropriation (Bob Marley, a revolutionary figure reduced to a revolutionary in the abstract only; Indian tapestries and elephant-shaped bowls and so on).

Save for the half-assed, colonial-minded exploration of “other cultures” beginning and ending with the exoticism of weed smoking, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the aesthetics of the male blaze, just as there is nothing wrong the bro, but it is representative nonetheless, of people (mostly, straight white males) and corporations (mostly run by straight white males) foisting ideas and ways of living on people—even when one is trying to escape all that in one’s apartment with a fresh eighth of Huckleberry.

A way to counter the male blaze is to consider not only how you smoke but what you smoke with. The material, form, and decoration of a piece can be just as important as what’s inside your bowl in helping us express what smoking means and how we practice smoking.

That said, the easy fix isn’t the “artisanal bong” with some pretense to good design via clean and smooth lines to counter the weed-bro hegemony. There are limits to the artisanal bong stuff as well. A quick dip into the DIY marketplace of Etsy yields a lot of the same problems as more mainstream bowls. You see a lot of sellers using the same blanks and still clumsily customizing their wares with surface decoration (sports teams, cats, whimsical shit) or just selling globs of glass and horrifically rendered figures of some kind. This sort of customization can only go so far, and it feeds into this recent revamping of the weed smoker image, which moves away from the dorm room and hippie basement towards a twee, clean, handmade look that isn’t any better.

From a purely aesthetic point of view on paraphernalia, it is limited and far too polite. And this “Portlandia” look is ultimately just an update on the “chill” qualities of white bros and hippies—indeed, white straight male culture is for the most part forever telling everyone else to chill. More importantly, twee weed design is part and parcel with the problematic image of the young, quirky white entrepreneur in Colorado entering the weed field and cashing in as we move slowly towards legalization, even as legalization and decriminalization barely benefit people of color—who are disproportionately arrested for possession and distribution and because of past arrests, will be locked out of the imminent legal weed boom.

The cluelessness under which even the more “tasteful” male blaze operates is evident in director Marble Slinger’s 2011 film about craftsmen making pipes titled, “Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes.” On the most superficial level, referring to weed culture as “degenerate” is a faux-edgy (weed is only seen as transgressive because of anti-drug laws whose origins are racist) and on the other hand, Degenerate Art is a term that Nazis used to dismiss modern art and artists who were you know, usually Jewish, Communist, or queer and occasionally all three. So, is the attempt here to equate the half-assed joshing of American stoners making glass pipes with the oppression during the Nazi regime? Have these stoners even thought this out? Of course they haven’t, they don’t need to think it through.

Glass pipes are always a bit suspect anyway because the material is not very accessible—glasswork is exclusive. It’s a restrictive medium. Glass requires extreme heat and a variety of specialized tools to manipulate and the availability of these tools to the independent artists is relatively recent. Before the early 1960s, small, inexpensive furnaces were not available for independent artists who wanted to produce glass works outside of industrial production. The Studio Glass Movement established glass as a medium at the fingertips of artists who yearned for glass to be an expressive, not solely a functional material—it made it more inclusive. But with over 40 years of experimentation and expression, one has to wonder why so much of what we get when it comes to glass weed-smoking devices are things that look like a sparkly used condom, a cartoon character, or both.

A petite, preferable example of the fine craft of functional smoking art is a ceramic piece I picked up at the Publications and Multiples Fair in 2015 by artist Dana Bechert. This ceramic bowl illustrates a more thoughtful decorative technique, showing more of the hand of the maker via its sgraffito decoration derived from scraping-off the colored slip to create a more dynamic decoration that explicitly plays with addition and subtraction, fusing form and decoration through the manipulation of geometric patterns.

Specifically, this kind of technique is successful because you’re seeing the process of the artist and the repetitive, shallow scraping away of the darker slip which affects the body of the piece itself. And this technique makes clear the meditative quality of the artist’s repetitive process—acts that I echo while I’m grinding the weed or scraping out my bowl to clean it. Again, this is about the variance of smoking and a contrast to the predominant bro-y kind of smoking: Meditation versus escapism, and if it’s about chilling out, then it’s tied to sitting with one’s thoughts and being reflective, not blank-faced and stupid for a few hours. To incorporate decoration into the form itself, as this little ceramic piece does, not as an afterthought, stuck on last minute, feels more whole, and more honest.

Another favorite male blaze-bucking piece—and one that’s far less pricey and more accessible—is the no-bullshit but beautifully-executed fake cigarette one-hitter. Form follows function here. Its primary function is smoking, of course, but just as important is its function to deceive. It’s a small metal or quartz tube that from a distance looks like a store-bought cigarette and easily sits in a packet of smokes or in your jacket pocket, and can be stashed away quickly as needed. Upon closer inspection, the bold but uncomplicated mock filter admits to you that it’s not the real thing even before the non-cigarette weight and stiffness is felt by touch. It’s like pop-art: aesthetically pleasing, utilitarian, and mass-produced. It is both a piece to smoke with and an artistic manifestation of a more utilitarian device—the cigarette.

And because it allows you to smoke anywhere, it extracts smoking from designated spaces or times or moments. It’s a mobile, discrete smoking device that frees you from weed culture’s pervasive “male blaze.”

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