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1 million dollar bong

The Million-Dollar Mystery Glass Show

Photos by Sunny Ali

Before my friend Prik moved back to his homeland, where people dislike weed culture, he distributed his pipe collection to his crew. I was the happy recipient of four pipes. I didn’t inspect my new collection until I sat down to test them. Laid out in front of me, each pipe had numerous design flaws. They were all awkward to hold, and except for one pipe, they were ugly as shit and covered in little beads and horns. My favorite pipe, the Claw, was supposedly a sidecar bubbler, but it had massive structural flaws. Curved spikes surrounded the bowl piece, making it a pain in the ass to light.

I hated the pipes’ designs, but I smoked out of them because they worked. Soon the pipes were fixtures on my coffee table. When my friends visited, they described my pipes as ugly, but that made me love my collection even more. I saw each pipe as an amateur artist’s failed attempt to make something beautiful. I imagine Prik received the pipes from friends who were giving their imperfect works away for free. The flawed pipes reminded me that it’s hard to create a pipe that works well, looks great, and stands apart from the spoons for sale on Saint Marks.

Like any glass collection, my pipes have fluctuated based on my income level and the state of my clumsiness. At the very least, I always have a bong, a spoon, and a chillum. I always spend more on glass than I can afford. (For me, that means $200 for one pipe.) I envy my friends with high-end collections; smoking out of an ornate piece makes the session more ceremonial.

Last week, I received an invitation to a glass show in Philly that came with a caveat: If I wrote about the event, I couldn’t mention attendees’ names or addresses. Paraphernalia is still illegal in Pennsylvania, and the organizers didn’t want to draw attention to the volume and value of their exhibition. These restrictions sparked my interest. On Friday, I hopped on a bus to Philly, scooped up my frequent collaborator Sunny Ali to take photos, and headed to the gallery, where I found pipes on sale for thousands of dollars.

On the first night, the exhibition was packed. JOP!, one of the resident pipe makers, told me, “We knew there would be a turnout, but we didn’t expect 400 RSVPs to be gone in 30 minutes. There’s even a secondary market, and people are selling their free RSVPs for a hundred bucks.” The crowd looked like any standard collection of weed enthusiasts—white dudes with a variety of different haircuts. In any other setting, it would have been hard to tell who was a serious pipe collector ready to drop thousands of dollars on a single glass piece.

The high prices seemed excessive until you examined the quality of the work. Most artists had a defined style and signature detail, like JOP!’s chickens or Salt’s eyeballs, and each collection had its own theme. Coyle created a series of banana and monkey-themed pipes crafted entirely in black, white, and bright yellow glass, and Germ showcased a collection of long, slender pieces. “I did some research, and I found these old glass pipes from the 1700s and 1800s called whimsies,” Germ said, geeking out like a fine artist talking about his craft. “These elongated pieces are representations of those old pipes using contemporary techniques and designs, but with the same sort of shape. We all think this shit started in the 80s, but really it started in the 1780s!”

Every piece demanded appreciation. With towering structures resting on delicate stems of glass, some appeared to defy the laws of physics. Others had defined shapes that appeared finely carved, although they had been fashioned from molten glass. “The craft has changed. The work has tightened up. Techniques have been shared more,” JOP! said, as we smoked cigarettes in his studio. Some pipe makers wanted to keep their methods a secret, because they didn’t want a competitor to jack their style, but most pipe makers were willing to socialize with other artists. In the last few years, exclusivity has diminished, and the community has begun to nurture self-made artists who show promise—getting into the craft no longer requires connections. “You can go on YouTube. A dude can sit at home and learn how to blow glass without ever firing up a torch,” JOP! said.

The internet has also given OGs a new platform to promote their work and gain notoriety outside the small, insular world of high-end glass. After years in the game, they’re creating colorful, complex pieces that look crazy when they’re photographed from the correct angle—in other words, they are creating Instagram gold. Exposing their work to thousands of followers has brought them widespread appreciation. Artists who started out selling $24 pipes are now making stacks at galleries. Marble Slinger, who has been blowing glass for 17 years, spent the early chunk of his career selling simpler pipes for modest sums. “Back then it was huge if you could sell a pipe for $420. Now I sell pipes for $10,000, and that’s not so unusual,” he said. Of course, people aren’t paying for the same old glass. Technology has given us the best glasswork anyone has ever seen. “The pipes we have today are made out of colored glass, which wasn’t as available [in the past], and with equipment that didn’t exist back then,” Marble said.

The pipe makers agreed that the current glass renaissance is a culmination of several elements. The internet has allowed more exposure to artists, and the spread of legalization has brought new and returning smokers out of the woodwork. Some of these folks have a lot of money to spend. At the gallery show, there didn’t appear to be any millionaires among the crowd, so I was curious to see what high-end collectors looked like. One of the organizers introduced me to Zach, an awkward white dude in his late 20s who had long hair, glasses, and tattoos peeking out from under his jacket sleeves. After he told me that he planned on picking up a couple of thousand-dollar pieces at the show, I asked Zach about how much money he had poured into his collection over the years. He humbly shied away from his pipes’ monetary value and instead told me what they meant to him: “It’s just exciting. You’ll see something new and you’ll just fall in love with it from seeing a photograph, and you’ll think, I’d like to have that. It’s like that with all art, but this is art that’s actually within a price range that you can [afford]. Even at the highest end, it’s still pretty acquirable compared to other types of art—and it has a function, and it’s a function that’s really close to my heart.”

There is one aspect of artful pipes that nobody can deny—they’re all working pipes, and that makes them more functional and practical than most art. “You’re talking to a guy who spent $18,000 on a pipe,” Marble said. “Anyone who’s spent anything close to that on a painting has just hung it on their wall. He’s kissed this [pipe]. He’s put it to his lips. He’s gotten high through it. He’s shared it with his friends. No one is passing a painting around the room.”

Zach agreed. He has a particular affinity for Elbo’s microscopes and has gone to great lengths to attain them. “I once flew to Florida for like four hours just to get this one [$1,000] microscope piece that I really wanted,” he said. I asked Zach how he had the disposable income required to maintain an expensive collection. He told me he owns a liquor store. “People like to drink,” he said.

Seeing Zach’s artistic devotion made it hard to accept that collecting is still a borderline illegal craft. Decriminalization and legalization have come far, but there are still instances like this show, where smokers have to hide their passion from a world that still partially sees their hobby as drug addiction. But things are headed in the right direction, and it won’t be long before the high-end glass trade is happening in public, with price tags ranging from $10,000 to $100,000 and more. When a $1 million dollar piece finally comes out, you can be sure it’ll have a bowl in it, and its lucky owner will pack it up, pass it to his homeboys, and hope nobody drops it.

T. Kid is VICE’s Weediquette columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

Last week, I attended a glass show in Philly where rich white dudes spent thousands of dollars on bongs they considered works of art.