A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Creation of the World's Largest Bong
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
If you’ve decided to go about creating the world’s largest bong, Seattle is an obvious fit for a construction site.
Work on said bong—which, when completed, will stand 24 feet tall and weigh 800 pounds—began this past weekend as part of the city’s 4/20 celebrations. The brainchild of Jason Harris and a handful of other renowned glassblowing artists, it will eventually be transported in pieces to Las Vegas, where it will be one of the attractions at Cannibition, an “immersive cannabis museum” that’s set to open this summer.
But though Las Vegas (and the rest of Nevada) has had legal weed for the past six months, it doesn’t have what Seattle has: The Pacific Northwest city isn’t just home to a thriving cannabis culture, it’s also what Harris described as the birthplace of the American glassblowing movement.
Tacoma native Dale Chihuly, whose museum sits at the base of the Space Needle, is the figure who brought artistic glassblowing in the mainstream. His work has given rise to a collaborative glassblowing scene and a regional landscape dotted by schools and studios. Harris himself spent years at the Pilchuck glass school up in the northern suburb of Stanwood.
“This all started in Seattle,” Harris said. “Seattle is the main hub. From that one person (Chihuly), it kind of flourished to thousands of people blowing glass… It’s kind of a cultish subculture inside Seattle. It’s a rougher, Seattle look, and feel and smell.”
A massive glass bong isn’t just a manifestation of legal weed conquering the country (or at least most of the American West), it’s a technical challenge that requires 15 experienced artists working in tandem. There is something like a synchronized dance in their movement—they work mostly in concentrated silence but all know their roles, subtly shifting into exactly the right place in their own rhythms.
Working with glass as a medium requires extreme heat that turns it into a malleable material, a kind of liquid clay. (The ovens used by the team top out at 1,900 and 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit.) At those extreme, Harris told me, reaching a metal rod into the liquid inside is like “dipping into honey.”
Heat elongates the shape, so one artist goes to work with a blowtorch while others are stationed at the metal clasps on either end. Additional specialists blow into the mold to stretch it out further; once completed, sections of the future bong are carefully placed onto wet newspaper to cool and harden. The process really is mesmerizing, brilliant flashes of crimson flame and drippy gobs of glass.
“By showing the public how we create the things, it’s such magic,” Harris said. “People have never seen anything like it before. They just get drawn in.”
(For those out East who want to see this in action: Most of this crew is doing a similar exhibition in Brooklyn the third weekend of June.)
Harris has a colorful backstory, as you might expect from the guy who spent a four-day weekend overseeing the construction of a massive bong. Back in his 20s, he estimates he was selling $4 million in glass bongs per year. He had 70 employees, three product warehouses, “the BMW, the house on the hill, and plenty of payments. Then I got shut down, big time.”
In 2003, he was one of dozens of people—including Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame—were swept up by the feds in a sting operation known as Operation Pipe Dreams, which targeted the creators and distributors of paraphernalia.
“The whole time we were doing it, we knew it was not legal to make a pipe to smoke marijuana,” Harris admitted. “We put on there that it was for tobacco use only. But reality is, that’s acknowledging that they can be used for something else. There were a lot of busts in head shops. It was still shocking the day it happened.”
Unlike Chong, who was eventually sentenced to nine months, Harris did not serve any prison time but his assets were seized. He moved to Maui and set up a studio making glass art for tourists. He was able to make a stable living, re-establishing himself on solid (and wholly legit) ground. In the back of his mind, though, remained an old and familiar itch. Sensing a shift in public opinion on marijuana toward the beginning of this decade, he again began to dabble in bong making.
“I just really enjoy the shape of the bong,” Harris said. “I enjoy what it means to humans, to change and inspire thought, or to relax you, or whatever it is cannabis does for you. I believe that bong is a tool to make that happen.”
That said, he emphasized that he wasn’t going into any legal gray areas anymore. “In my mind, I’m thinking of the frog in a frying pan thing. Yeah, I’m putting my hand on the frying pan to see if it’s hot right now,” he said. “I try to stay within all perimeters of whatever state I’m in.”
The patchwork of state cannabis laws is another reason why the bong has to be built in Washington and Nevada, where he maintains a full-time studio.
“I think the laws all need to be clarified,” Harris said. “Right now, with all of the legalization in different states, traveling in airports, there is a lot of gray area with this whole subject. I think it’s part of the intrigue, but it’s also part of the problem. I don’t like seeing people get arrested for making pipes out of glass. It’s been a challenge for my whole life… Every day I deal with some little obstacle because I chose to make a bong out of that glass instead of making a fine wine glass.
“What we have here is a statement, about the state of the laws right now,” he went on. “I make giant bongs as a representation of art, to show this metaphor.”
OK, but can you use this particular representation to actually get stoned? Is the bong meant to be functional? Harris broke into a mischievous grin. It was still early in the process, but that was the plan. Make the parts in Seattle, cut and polish them. Then ship them to Vegas on the truck, where it will be installed, hopefully by July 1, along with a stairway leading to the top of it.
“And then,” Harris said, “we’re going to have some parties out there and see if we can hit this bad boy.”
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, and ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter.