The Heady Renaissance in Functional Glass: Bongs as High Art

The brave new world of bongs and other functional glass art.

"I believe the [functional] glass movement has a chance to become one of the biggest art movements in recent history," says Travis, owner of Buzz Smoke Shopa high-end, functional glass art boutique in Tucson, Arizona. 

Travis isn't far off. As more money enters the legal marijuana market, and mainstream interest drives innovation in the cannabis industry across all sectors, functional glass art is set to rise with the rest of that tide. A lot has changed in the past decade on the high end of weed consumption. In the glass game, hand-blown, artist-made pieces are selling for thousands of dollars, and may end up being as collectible as they are functional.

"seven or eight years ago, The gallery world didn’t want to have anything to do with pipe makers. Now, things are changing."

Fueled by social media and a product that is high in both social currency and actual monetary value, pipe-makers, glass-blowers, and even glass collectors make up an entirely new class of cannabis celebrity. At a recent gallery showing in Los Angeles, emerging glass artist Elbo—who first picked up the torch in art school—displayed hand-blown pieces with price-tags well over $10,000 and told collectors that his most recent clientele is coming from outside the weed world. Indeed, this rise in value has prompted some legal marijuana retail outfits that operate mostly in cash to employ functional glass art as a means of storing financial assets, or moving money. Also, glass can be bought by credit card, unlike the product that is smoked in it.

Photo: Ben Karris/The KIND

To celebrate and glean deeper insight into the functional glass renaissance, the KIND reached out to various heads within this particularly heady community. 

Loki: Colorado-based glass artist and entrepreneur behind  Slugworth Glass.

On entering the industry:
When I first started, I was mostly doing soft glass, and it was all gallery work. I didn’t want to have to work a regular job for 40 hours a week, and then blow glass on the side. I wanted to do this full-time; so I switched to the functional side of things, and gave myself an art alias. Seven or eight years ago, people didn’t like pipe makers. The gallery world didn’t want to have anything to do with you. Now, things are changing. Functional glass art is being more widely recognized in the fine art world.

Image: Courtesy of Loki/Slugworth Glass

On the early economics of functional glass art:
I’d make a traditional glass flower and would have trouble selling it for $150. Once it becomes a functional, smokable flower, you’ll have kids lining up to pay $300 for it. When I first started, we didn’t have social media as a means of free marketing. It was very grassroots. I would email and call each and every shop. The shops and retailers I work with are like a family. If I hadn’t built those relationships within the community, Slugworth glass wouldn’t be nearly as big as it is now. And we still don’t have nearly as big a following online as some of these glass artists out there.

On the occupational hazards of blowing glass:
Proper ventilation is probably the most important part of any glass-blowing studio. Anybody can be a glass blower in a garage, but spend the money to do it for the long haul, and do it right. It’s very important to rid the air of contaminants.

I recently hurt my hand, but it was a huge fluke. My left hand was holding a glass ground joint, and in the other hand, I had a glass-blowing tool. And when I placed the ground joint, the force shattered the glass and my right hand stabbed my left hand. But, the chances of that happening are really slim. I’ve loaded probably close to 10,000 ground joints, and that’s the first time one has broken on me. I’ve been burned a million times, but major injuries like that are rare. 

"Instagram has been a huge catalyst in uniting people within the marijuana community."

Travis: Owner of Buzz Smoke Shop, a high-end functional glass art retailer in Tucson, Arizona.

On building relationships with glass artists and the functional community:
When we first began, we had to try fairly hard to get artists to sell to us. Other shops in Tucson had a reputation for turning away artists like the ones we were approaching, due to the high prices of today's glass community. But we have been fortunate to promote these artists within our shop and open up the market locally. This has only encouraged more artists to approach us. From time to time, however, we do have to make a strong effort to reach some of the more popular artists.

Five Things to Look for When Purchasing Heady Glass Art:
Color Checks: Carefully inspect colored glass for hairline fractures. When colors in glass don't set properly after completion, the piece is more likely to crack.

Water Test: If buying a rig or water pipe, always make sure to give it a water test (if allowed) to ensure you have a piece that functions correctly. 

Stable Base: Make sure your piece has a stable base. You don't want the piece to fall over while in use, or otherwise.

Joint Placement: You never want to have a functional piece where the joint is too close to your face.

Artist and Brand Validity: Often times shops will misrepresent the work they carry in hopes of up selling an item to an unknowing customer.

On the growth of functional glass art:
As far as industry growth over the next few years, I believe the [functional] glass movement has a chance to become one of the biggest art movements in recent history. With the nationwide legalization of marijuana, more artists will be inspired to enter the glass industry, because the demand for pieces is growing so quickly. This heightened demand creates a rise in the value of the work, as well. Artists who were once barely earning money for their work are sometimes pulling in as much as $30,000 per piece.

Brett: Los Angeles-based heady glass collector.

On starting a collection:
See what’s out there. Get on Instagram and see how far glass has progressed in the past 10 years. When I worked in head shops, I hated when people would buy something just because it was the first piece they saw. A collection doesn’t have to be expensive, but every piece should have significance to the owner.

On glass maintenance:
It’s best to clean your glass when the function starts to suffer. I like to use the brand, Grunge Off. It requires a quick soak, but it will take off anything (including cheap vinyl labels). For cleaning anything with a label or just a quick clean, I recommend Orange Chronic.

On buying and re-selling glass online:
Caveat emptor. Buyer beware: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. That being said, I’ve had only positive experiences selling on borobook. One of the biggest issues is actually dealing with postal services—they lose packages (or confiscate them?) pretty frequently. Always request tracking numbers and pay for insurance.

On plugging into your local legal weed scene:
Instagram has been a huge catalyst in uniting people within the marijuana community. It’s a great place to start. Search hashtags relative to your area (#seattledabbers, #medicatednewyork). Hang out at your local head shop. Those guys usually know what’s up. Here in Southern California, I recommend weekly events like Blacklist Sesh or Secret Sesh.

Artists to Watch Out For:
Alex Ubatuba