May 29, 2023

Graf, Weed and 420

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Upon re-reading my previous several blog posts I realized I come across as somewhat negative about cannabis and the still fairly new (to me) legal cannabis industry. For that I apologize, and want to make it more clear about where I stand here.

For better or worse I seem to spot trends before they become trendy and then become resentful when they do, whether it’s graffiti art, good weed or 420. As a little kid who grew up taking the SEPTA subway to school in Philadelphia in the late 1970s and early 1980s I fell in love with the graffiti that adorned both the outside and the inside of the subway cars.

Aside from the unique letterforms that have influenced my love of typography to this day, what I loved most about it was the rawness and daring of it all. Who were these people that were doing this? How did they make such amazing art in the dark? I knew a few kids from school who claimed to be writers and probably were, but I didn’t personally know the writers whose work I saw most. Writers like Credit, Jay Cee, Bucks, Tap SP (SP for South Philly), Espo and Met. I remember an amazing piece by Credit on the upper wall of my grade school that included a statement that said “if art is not a crime, why do cops give me such a hard time?”. I left my house each morning looking forward to seeing anything new by these writers, whether it was a tag on the side of a building or a full-on, brand new piece on the walls and buildings of the city that were the new canvas of writers after the subways became literally impossible to paint.

This was before the amazing book called Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, before the movies Wild Style or Style Wars. Graf at that point was still completely underground, and completely rebellious. Severely frowned upon by the general public, its existence showed me that there was a tantalizing culture that I was not a direct part of, and I found it very intriguing, not least for the fact that it was completely illegal.

Another part of this underground culture was rap music, and I loved Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash (who I saw in concert, along with Kurtis Blow, Whodini, the Fat Boys and Run DMC). All of it was fresh and raw and not yet co-opted by commercialism. But after Beat Street came out and breakdancing and rap music became trendy, I quickly lost interest. It just didn’t have the same appeal to me anymore, it was like being in on a fun secret that suddenly everyone knew about. I wanted in on the next fun secret and I found it in Oregon.

Moving from Philly to Oregon in the early 1980s was a complete and total culture shock to me. I went from being a minority in my school in Philly to attending a school in Portland that was over 90% white kids like myself. None of them had heard about graffiti or rap music, and I definitely got quite a few looks at my suede Pumas with fat laces and adidas track suits. But what they didn’t know about hip hop culture (that term hadn’t even been invented yet) they made up for with their knowledge of weed.

Because Oregon was the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize back in 1973, it became the breeding ground (pun not intended but I’ll take it) for connoiseur-level cannabis before anywhere else in the country. Being a wet and rainy state located in the Pacific Northwest, growing weed back then meant growing indoors (it was also much easier to avoid detection by helicopters and nosy neighbors). With the Dutch having simultaneously started their now famous cannabis breeding experiments, Oregon growers were the first in the U.S. to really perfect amazing indoor cannabis, often from seeds obtained from cannabis seed banks in Amsterdam.

I was first given a taste of such weed from the drinking end of a 7-Up can (with holes poked in the middle of the can which served as both a bowl and impromptu screen) halfway up a tree a few blocks from my high school. The flavor and effect of that first taste of real weed was something I’ll never forget, and I instantly fell in love not just with cannabis, but the entire illegal lifestyle that surrounded it.

There’s a reason the plot of all the Cheech & Chong movies was simply how and where to score weed. It was way different from today’s world of a dispensary every 100 feet. Back then, scoring weed meant knowing someone who knew someone who knew someone, and the game was to climb the ladder of middlemen until you found an actual dealer. And if you progressed beyond that to an actual grower you were a god among your peers, as growers back then were a super secretive society, much like the secret society of graffiti writers I had left behind in Philly.

Even if you managed to find a dealer and/or a grower, there was still no guarantee you would score weed. More often than not your source was out of weed, which meant the more dealers and growers you knew the better your odds were of scoring weed. And the best part for me in all this was that I was lucky enough to be unraveling this new secret society in the state of Oregon, where the weed was as good back then as it is today.

This was definitely not the case for the rest of the country, and Oregon weed quickly became the most sought-after cannabis in the U.S. Traveling back to Philly to visit my mom’s house in Center City, I really did feel like a god with my secret stash of Oregon weed. If I somehow managed not to smoke it all before flying back to Oregon, I’d pick out a lucky unsuspecting stranger to give the last of my stash to, because why would I risk bringing weed on a plane back to Oregon? Whether it was a carful of teenagers on South Street or two women on a city bus, I loved stoking out total strangers by simply opening my hand that was filled with fragrant Oregon weed and saying “here you go”.

It was the looks on their faces, the total appreciation they had for even the smallest amount of good weed, that really made me love the outlaw quality of the whole lifestyle. The fact that it was forbidden made it that much sweeter. This outlaw mentality is also what drew me to graffiti art, as I could only imagine how sweet it must have felt to the writers who created large works of art—in near-dark conditions on constant lookout for cops—to see their pieces in the light of day, and to know their work was going to be seen by a lot of people. In a way, it was the predecessor of social media, the only way to express oneself to a large group of strangers. The names writers came up with for themselves back then are basically no different than the handles people come up with for their social media accounts today, and the need to be seen and talked about is the driving force.

In hindsight, what made graffiti and the underground weed market most intriguing is that they were both examples of a lost phenomenon, that of a secret club. With the internet—and especially social media—it’s truly impossible to have anything remain a secret for long these days. The very idea is completely foreign to today’s youth, and while there’s something to be said for the increased transparency and immediate sharing of ideas that comes with the 24/7 access to information brought about by smartphones, I can’t help but be a bit nostalgic for the feeling I had of being part of something that most people didn’t know about. It made me feel cool, special. This feeling today is accomplished by getting as many likes and followers as you can on social media, and it’s a basic human need of being accepted by one’s peers. The difference, however, between being accepted into a secret club of the old days and being accepted on social media today is that with the secret club you didn’t want the whole world to know you were in the secret club, whereas with social media the goal is to reach the whole world with no discernment over the demographics of your audience. I suppose the graf writers of old did want as many people as possible to see their work, but they certainly didn’t want all those people to know who they actually were. No way would they have taken a selfie in front of their illegal work, and no way would a weed dealer, or even a weed smoker, have advertised themselves to the general public.

Perhaps the best example of a secret club is the now-passé phenomenon of 420. We know today where and how it started (see this video from Lagunitas Brewing for the official historical account), but back when I was introduced to it in 1987 it was still a super underground thing. I just happened to be lucky enough to meet a kid who had graduated from the high school where it started (San Rafael High School in Marin County, CA), and he told me right away not to tell too many people about it, and used the phrase “those who know don’t tell, and those who tell don’t know” meaning that if you told too many people about it you didn’t know what an honor it was to be part of this secret club.

This was three years before High Times broke the story in 1990, and it was weird for me to find out how that happened so many years later while walking the streets of Vancouver, Canada. As the Creative Director for the ICBC (International Cannabis Business Conference), I was privileged to meet a number of old-school cannabis big wigs, one of them being Steve Bloom, the music editor of High Times back in the day and the person responsible for High Times breaking the story about 420. We were walking to the after party of the 2017 ICBC in Vancouver and a friend of mine from Marin just happened to be in town and was walking with us. The subject of 420 came up, and Steve Bloom told us how he’d heard about it and subsequently had High Times publish it. He was in the middle of telling the story when my friend completed his sentence for him, and it turned out that in the spring of 1990 Bloom had received a flyer for a 4/20 party on Bolinas Ridge on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, and my friend from Marin who was walking with us was the one who had given him that flyer.

I gave Steve a hard time for moving the boulder of secrecy that had, until that time, neatly covered the small group of people who knew about 420. Suddenly 420 was everywhere, and people began using it on their merch and the commercialism of 420 that continues to this day was disgorged from the ever-hungry belly of capitalism.

Here was yet another trend I’d been a part of before it became trendy, and I couldn’t help but remember what I’d been told about 420 in the very beginning, which was not to tell too many people about it. Of course, this was way before social media, or even the internet, back when the only phone for all twenty-five occupants of the second floor of my dormitory at University of Oregon was a community payphone in the hallway. Even if I had told someone (and I definitely did tell a select few), it was still a very slow era for information to travel from person to person, with the only way to reach a massive audience being to publish in a major publication like High Times.

So am I resentful of being a part of graf, weed and 420 before these things became trendy? Or should I be thankful and humbled that I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time for all of these things? I think it’s definitely the latter, and I will endeavor to do my best when it comes to being open to the fact that cannabis is now very mainstream, and not post so many blogs that seem a bit negative upon re-reading.

I mean, c’mon, I’ve been doing cannabis-related graphic design since 1993 (when I designed the logo for a line of snowboarding apparel called Potency, I’ll have to dig that one up and put it on my portfolio one of these days), so why shouldn’t I applaud the fact that from a business standpoint I’m doing my dream job on a daily basis? I never would have gotten to hang out with Tommy Chong all over the world (he was our celebrity guest speaker at many ICBC events when we first started), or have Snoop Dogg promote my work (he’s a big JBD fan and recently posted on Insta his new JBD bong with my original graffiti logo on it, and he’s also posed in front of the logo I created for Jamaica Joel’s cannabis dispensary).

So my apologies if you have read the posts prior to this one, perhaps I’ll just remove all the negative-sounding ones and start from here only posting positive stuff.