The Rise of Outlaw Art: Bubbled Up From the Underground
The Rise of Outlaw Art: Bubbled Up From the Underground
The year is 2003; enter, Operation Pipe Dreams. The DEA, who did not consider glass pipes to be “art,” set out on a mission to slaughter pipe makers. They say so in the February 14, 2003 DEA press release: “OPERATION PIPE DREAMS PUTS 55 ILLEGAL DRUG PARAPHERNALIA SELLERS OUT OF BUSINESS - National Sweep Shuts Down Retailers, Distributors And Internet Sites,” (www.justice.gov).
The reckless story of Pipe Dreams begins around the same time that many American glass workers were just starting to make ends meet, seeing steady growth from their humble beginnings. Thanks to the escalating support from a few especially open-minded communities, like Dead and Phish fans hanging out in parking lots before and after shows, these artists began to see a much more promising trajectory ahead of them. Unfortunately however, due to a society largely unable to acknowledge the art in what glassblowing was on its way towards becoming, the War on “Drugs” was founded. The artists were treated like criminals by most of “normal” society.
Jason Harris, owner and proprietor of the iconic Jerome Baker Designs explains, “I woke up at six in the morning with someone banging on my door and saw the massive amount of police and army people at my house… I got hogtied and arrested and I didn’t actually know what was going on until I got to the jail cell and was watching T.V. and realized there was a much larger issue than I was aware of,” (Operation Pipe Dream: 10 Years Later).
Now let’s fast forward to 2018. We see the incredible success of the once infamous street artist, Banksy. A Banksy piece is being bid on at an art auction; one of his most iconic pieces, of the gray, shadowy girl standing in the street. Based on the movement captured in the girl’s dress, the wind blows through from the left, having just nipped her red balloon away with it. This moment that Banksy captures is the exact one in time where the girl lost her balloon, and could presumably be the moment just preceding her tears. A simple Google search for “banksy art” will certainly yield this well-known piece. Why? What does it offer, in which people can recognize value? The languages communicated here aren’t ones that have to be learned, or spell-checked, and are never foreign, because these forms of communication innately exist in everyone.
Screenshot from Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art
Banksy is also notorious for his theatrical performance art, which sets him apart from other artists in his genre, and here’s why. First of all, nobody knows his real identity. It makes sense - how could they, when he commits crimes stemming from trespassing and vandalism on a regular basis? So, with arrests on the line, he has successfully concealed his identity for years. Back to the auction; the gavel swings and Banksy’s piece, hanging on the wall, sells for $1.4 million. The next second the picture starts sliding down the wall. What? Yes.
Out through the bottom of the frame, which has quickly become a shredder, and… the beautiful painting that just sold at $1.4M comes out the other side shredded into ribbons. It then stops after shredding a little more than half way, leaving the ribbons dangling beneath the frame, and little more than that damn unreachable red balloon intact. The staff of Sotheby’s auction scramble to remove the piece of art from the wall and view of the bidders, but it’s too late. The huge crowd is awestruck. Each auction-goer was uniquely and utterly dumbfounded, like their chairs had been pulled out from under them, their expressions begging to ask, “what the fuck?” ...and it was gone.
So, what’s the value of that to consumers or observers? Where is the “art” in any of it, if not just irreparably destroyed? They say that the human psyche is more prone to hang onto the feeling of emotions than almost anything else (along with smell). There is a well-known quote by Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” There is certainly truth to this. Evoking emotions in people is the value proposition here, which means that despite the feelings mostly being of nausea (especially for that dude who just dropped millions on a fancy paper shredder), people will pay for experiences like these - think in terms of movies. Moviegoers attend comedies to experience happiness, and will even pay for horror movies because they place value in experiencing an array of emotions as well (pre-Covid, that is).
“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” -Banksy
But, before the swanky auctions where his pieces eventually sold for millions, was the Banksy growing up in a world where graffiti, the predecessor to street art, was scorned. This was a revolutionary opportunity, not only for Banksy and his cohorts to prove themselves, but for all the other “degenerates” in their own congruous versions of his world as well. Back in the day, pipe makers were always, by default of trade, put up against the marijuana legalization battle. They were denounced as “potheads” or “lawbreakers,” who were highly criticized and more or less shamed, and were in fact being arrested and jailed. Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art referred to this as, “coming up within an illegal underground subculture,” as he too came up against this society who called him a “degenerate.” Gaining popularity and recognition alongside the graffiti and street art movement was also the little-known world of glass blowing, making its own way under similarly choking circumstances and largely judgemental perspectives from the general public. Although the glassblowing of pipes and other smokable glass items had begun about a decade and a half prior to the graffiti movement, during the 70’s and 80’s is when it became clear that glass pipes and rigs were now, inarguably, here to stay. Although it must be said, for the sake of being impartial, that the judgements and general public opinion weren’t necessarily wrong. One graffiti artist said of Banksy that part of the appeal is the “adrenaline of planning an elaborate crime.” They did smoke pot, they did steal art supplies, they did trespass and vandalize. Those known today as glass artists and street artists had to change the game to be recognized. Whether the world wanted to hear it or not, they continually showed people how art can be viewed in a completely different way than what they had previously been exposed to. Even burned into media and popular entertainment, is a theme of cops running after kids with spray paint or smoking weed. For example, in the classic TV show “The Fresh Prince of Belair” (which has resurfaced on HBO!), Will Smith raps the famous theme song, telling his woes of being shipped off from the hood in Philly to his well-to-do aunt and uncle’s in Bel Air, and what activity is he doing when he gets busted? Tagging walls with spray paint; it’s historically hated.
One might wonder why anyone would walk these paths, submitting themselves to ruin and possible arrest, if they knew they were going to be treated poorly and judged by most of society. What drives these people? The artists themselves are certainly creative types of people, maybe with little or no other sources for output. For many, their graffiti and glass blowing is simply not as significant as society makes it seem. For many, it’s just a form of expression; the chance to make something beautiful out of nothing, and far from just a commitment to criminal culture. It’s unfortunate that the legal discussion so often outweighs the artistic discussion in terms of pipe making and graffiti. It wasn’t until - just the first few people - started to actually take a closer look, maybe just beginning to understand the artists’ ideas, that anyone began to see value in the pieces that derived from these completely unforgiving “counter-”cultures. What makes art, and who decides when someone is truly an “artist”? In one regard, it’s the concept of beauty and subsequent value attached to the work. It’s what people see when they look; do they see a ruined building? A shredded painting? Do they see a hobo-looking person making a pipe to smoke illegal drugs?
For these artists it’s about love. Passion. Belief. A person’s compelling desire to not only create, but to create something that requires one hell of a fight before it’s accepted by society. Confidence in the notion that the underdogs of the world will see what they saw, feel what they felt, and will sing their praises for it. These are indeed NOT the “degenerates” that the world sees them as. These are the REAL artists. Those driven by an overwhelming, wholly consuming, inexplicable NEED to turn this idea into something tangible. Something relatable. Something beautiful.
“There are people out there who are made to do this,” (Slinger).
This subconscious energy that drives an artist to pursue their art form regardless of gain or cost is something I personally understand quite well. I’m married to one of them. My husband is not a painter or graffiti artist, not a glass blower, he’s a musician. For him it’s never been about becoming rich or famous, or being cool. It’s about creating what you know and what is very personal to you, the guts it takes to then offer that as a finished product to complete and total strangers, and the immeasurably priceless gift of seeing their expressions when that thing - that song that he wrote about his own life experience - connects with someone he’s never met and will likely never see again. I imagine there’s no better feeling than that on earth, and I imagine THAT’S that’s what really makes it worth the fight.
Banksy soon floored the public with many of his social progress-oriented works, pointing out issues in society that many had, for far too long, refused to acknowledge. He was known for featuring homeless people, rats behaving as humans, politicians as apes, police officers with obvious vulnerabilities, etc., in his works. He made a lot of strong social statements. Many times he even accomplished these in a witty and laughable way. How can you laugh at a witty joke about the downfall of society (really how can you not though?!)? Banksy makes it happen, and that’s why his work is now globally recognized as “art.” And while he was cutting his teeth as an up and coming street artist, our “degenerates” that blow glass, who, by default, stand for weed legalization, were slowly becoming more and more accepted. As people learn more about what they previously didn’t know or care to, they tend to feel more comfortable and thus more accepting. Simply by putting weed pipes into the hands of the public, these “degenerates” take their own crack at societal norms, like Banksy does. And it seems to have helped; today of many our states are in fact legalizing weed!
US legalization status map, current as of 2020.
It’s certainly hard to deny that the culture of glass art is one of enthusiasm, creativity and passion. And not to mention, some of the artists were downright courageous to release certain items to the public, for example, a functional pipe where you smoke out of a cat's asshole (shout out to MTP!). It was said that the pieces, unfortunately, “might be considered 'art' if only they didn't have that damn bowl pushed in ‘em,” (Slinger). Back to 2003, after years and years of long days, dedication, perfecting their craft and techniques, the glass blowers were finally able to consider things like feeding, clothing and housing their families and to foresee some well-deserved future career stability. Ryan Teurfs, former proprietor of one of the largest glass manufacturers at the time, 101 North out of Oregon, says they were excited to be able to offer health insurance, planned to implement more benefits, and spent virtually all their money on improvements for the shop and the artists’ working conditions. Then, they took their revolutionary, “beautiful, new objects that nobody had seen before,” (Slinger) to the internet. This move drew them closer to popularity by putting their pipes directly into the eye of the general public.
Regrettably though, the general public weren’t the only ones paying attention. The DEA also had their ever-watchful eye on these borosilicate WMD’s. The 2003 press release, mentioned previously, went on to say, "With the advent of the Internet, the illegal drug paraphernalia industry has exploded. The drug paraphernalia business is now accessible in anyone's home with a computer and Internet access. And in homes across America we know that children and young adults are the fastest growing Internet users. Quite simply, the illegal drug paraphernalia industry has invaded the homes of families across the country without their knowledge. This illegal billion-dollar industry will no longer be ignored by law enforcement. Today, the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force… has taken decisive steps to dismantle the illegal drug paraphernalia industry by attacking their physical, financial and Internet infrastructures," (www.justice.gov). The documentary, Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes, says that this upheaval by the feds, where many glass blowers were arrested and their hard-earned livelihoods destroyed, served only to push the subculture further underground. But only momentarily.
The DEA suckerpunched the glass movement - right in the gut, causing pause and tremendous uncertainty as to whether or not making pipes out of glass and selling them online was actually against the law. When the dust cleared, fifty five shop proprietors and artists were brought up on charges, not the least of whom being perhaps the most recognized stoner of them all, Mr. Tommy Chong (also the only one of the fifty five to serve any real jail time). “It seems the government’s motivation for incarcerating Tommy was to set an example for cannabis consumers nationwide, almost as if to say ‘Checkmate stoners, we have captured your King!’” (Operation Pipe Dream: 10 Years Later).
Photo source: RollingStone.com
But artists are no strangers to hardship. They kept at their trade and came out stronger than ever. The discipline, effort and passion (and maybe a splash of resentment) that went into each piece was tangible, and through their diligence, the art survived and found its way to a demographic thirstier for it than ever before. The artists and the public began to find the ability to connect with one another through common interest, “it was a spiritual thing,” (Slinger) - to a certain extent they began to understand one another. Included in any glass purchase comes with it the experience of using it, passing it amongst homies, and, in the best of times, having an awesome day together. You keep it with you when you travel, you keep it in your pocket or purse if possible, and it, in itself, becomes like a best friend; to the extent that people often give their pipes names (I once knew a bong named Sandy quite well). With fumed pipes (side note: credit to the man who invented fuming and thus revolutionized modern pipemaking, Bob Snodgrass. Learn more at snodgrass.net, or check out this interview with the Godfather of Glass, as he is often referred to) you can watch them change color with each use, eventually changing into something completely different than it looked like , AND even returning to that original color when cleaned. THIS experience with a new friend and travel companion is what glass artists give to us.
Years later, these previously bastardized glass blowers recovered - and in spades. In a 2013 Huffpost article noting the ten year anniversary of Pipe Dreams, the author wrote, “If we were to judge the success of Operation Pipe Dreams by its impact on today’s drug paraphernalia businesses, I would have to say it was a complete and utter waste of time and revenue considering the industry’s prevalence…” The glass industry re-launched to massive success as a billion dollar industry; one where blown glass paraphernalia is more often considered “art” than not. Seven years has passed since that article was written, and the industry is still larger than ever before. It’s new, interesting, “...like a wave of culture” that you just want to be a part of, says one of the artists featured in Degenerate Art.
Glass artist Lace Face at the torch.
Let’s be honest, most artists don’t just wake up one day and decide they’re going to be famous for becoming an expert at a craft with such a slim chance of recognition as graffiti or glass blowing offer. No apprentice glass blower has delusions of one day creating the kind of rigs that sell for a healthy down payment on a house. They’re not really doing it for them, they’re doing it for us. They feel like there’s this tremendous void in their soul that can only be filled by creation, and when they finally get it right, the gratification of seeing a consumer’s appreciation of that thing, that started out as little more than fleeting urge an artist felt in their entire body to create something, is a thirst that cannot ever be quenched. When first approached by an art collector and fan about putting his works up for public sale, Banksy mocked him.
The man asked, “...but do you realize how much money you could be making for the same work you’re painting all over town for free?” Banksy chuckled and replied, “I’m a graffiti artist, mate. We don’t do this because we expect it to make us millionaires.”
Banksy and his peers watched as graffiti became a recognized art form, and so became art that people are willing to pay real money for. And now, so has glass. People spending priceless-art kinds of money on glass pipes or rigs is something that the first ever pipe makers wouldn’t have ever imagined becoming a reality, but here we are. (A quote from Degenerate Art, “Yeah boys! We have work!”) And here at Stoked, we very much celebrate this! We are humbled to have been able to carve out our own little role in bringing some of the highest-end pieces to market, and THAT’S something we couldn’t have done without you, reader, and the “degenerates” who have chosen to share their passions with us. Today, we see so many more “degenerates” truly thriving - growing their crafts with no threats in sight, and we can’t wait to see what happens in the future of “counter-culture” artists.
For more exposure to wholeheartedly different art and vibrant cultures, the documentaries cited here are a highly recommended place to begin!
Espana, Elio. Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art, interviews by Ben Eine, Steve Lazarides, John Nation, Publisher, 2020. Amazon Prime, www.amazon.com/Banksy-Rise-Outlaw-Art-Eine/dp/B083XBP5XF.
Slinger, Marble. Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes, M. Slinger Productions, 2011. YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=utYgM4ChnG8.