In a world where individuality and uniqueness is increasingly compartmentalized, marginalized and homogenized, it seems as if there couldn’t possibly be the slightest hint of expression that hasn’t been exploited for one purpose or another. The exponential growth of technological prowess promises an even more muted sense of expression where conformity is pimped as hyper-individuality. Within the massive die out of flesh and bone there rises a simulation of the self where breath is replaced by code. But before this extinction began art was being stripped of all its humanity for quite some time.
There hasn’t been an art form that has remained untouched and unscathed by the greedy little fingers of the machine. I once sat back in awe watching powerful and expressive colors cascading by me on subway trains and city streets. Mesmerized by the sheer free quality of this exciting new art form, I too joined as many other inner city teens did. We felt like we were doing something real, something different, something that the mainstream had nothing to do with. We could not be bought.
Fast forward to now. Graffiti has become cheap, blasphemous commodity; kitsch. It has been robbed of its essence and as soon as it obtained artifice and was created with an ulterior motive, it lost all credibility. It started with taggers doing there work on canvass and selling it to the art world elite and morphed into the post graffiti world where the likes of Banksy and Obey have made truckloads of cash from clothing lines and coffee table books. Nothing is sacred and the saddest part is how seemingly subservient the artists allowed themselves to be taken.
There is however, I claim, one true, untouched, folk art that is alive and well, existing right under the noses of the power elite, yet still to this day unravaged by the filthy hands of the money man. It flourishes beneath the underbelly of the city and stands proud within the shadows of the economic strain, laughing at the swelling and contracting of the stock market. This art is heroin bag package graphics.
I feel safe in saying that there is an even more compelling allure to this art form within the fact that the movers and the shakers of the art world have either overlooked, neglected, or simply were unaware of its existence at all. This black market expression runs on the back of an artistic branding that is not only unique and stylish, but is socially relevant.
To move further here we need to define folk art in itself. Generally the criteria for the definition is as follows: folk art encompasses the collective expression of a certain indigenous people and revolves around a certain trade. Folk art is usually utilitarian and has a naïve and unschooled style. Traditional rules of aesthetic, proportion or perspective are ignored and the look is usually a reflection of the surrounding milieu.
Unbeknownst to outsiders, the heroin market has many intricacies which I will briefly cover here for the sake of a better understanding of the art form alone. Latin or black dealers generally do not use the drug. Its an unwritten rule. Whereas the white dealers usually do. The people designing the graphics that identify each heroin brand therefor are not users. In turn the images tat are chosen for the bag branding are usually of cartoonish proportion. Assuming what addicts will equate with a strong batch, the artists exploit certain obvious imagery. References to overdose, death, medicine and sickness are typical.
“Poison”, “Dead Man Walking”, “Red Line”, “Body Bag”. These are examples of a few very popular brands that I have seen. The advertising was simple. A potential buyer, ie:junkie, would be walking down a block known for its drug trade and street dealers would call out the name of whichever brand they were carrying. If the addict knew this brand was reliable and potent, he would then approach the dealer and the sale would go down. Names would gather reputations at times and certain brands would become so popular that copy cats would pop up all over the place. This is where turf wars would emerge. With every name there would be an image, crudely stamped on to the wax paper bag in red, blue, black or green ink. Once in a while you would come across a purple or orange inked stamp, but for the most part the colors were basic and limited.
Narcotics enforcement were well informed of the branding trade and whenever there would be an epidemic emergency room explosion of addicts who were overdosing from a certain brand, the cops would find out who were running that name and then all involved with the brand would go to jail for the damage. At times homicide would be charged to guys who had nothing to do with the actually overdose, but a conspiracy charge would stick using the bond of the street brand to tie all together. For a while name brands seemed to die off because of this.
With the rise of cell phone dealers, the need to call out name brands in the street became less and less of a phenomenon, but the presence of brand art is still quite alive and well.
Artistic branding is unique onto the heroin trade and does not exist in the world of other drugs such as cocaine, crack, meth, cannabis, and so on. With this being said, its odd to think about how present drug culture imagery is in modern day visuals. In any mall across America you will see hip hop kids wearing shirts with pot leaf insignias, imprint wording “Coke Boys”, dollar bills and lines of cocaine, and other text referencing “addiction” or Junkie. Where is this going? And why is there such an allure grafted onto the fabric of this subculture? To think there exists a drug identification which has not been thrown to the wolves seems unlikely but it is in fact exactly that. Perhaps it is simply an esoteric world to which so very few are exposed to that the select initiated feel an affinity to the spirit of purity, even as undercurrent and unconscious, or perhaps it is much simpler than that; where being that no pop icon has exploited it as of yet, therefor there is no immediate need for the ‘goods’.
END OF PART 1