The Art of Smack: Graham MacIndoe's 'All In'

Artist Graham MacIndoe's new book looks at the design and typography of heroin bags collected over his years as an addict.

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Nov 3 2014, 6:50pm

When the photographer and fine artist Graham MacIndoe found a batch of about 30 heroin bags in his personal storage, he was understandably a bit alarmed. He had been an addict years ago, and finding them threw him off. Although he had ideas about using them for art, he was hesitant to take them out of storage and back to his studio, as he would risk being arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia. After the last time he was arrested several years ago, MacIndoe spent four months in Rikers Island, which eventually led him to rehab. He's been clean ever since.

Later, MacIndoe found a second batch of about 50 to 60 glassine bags stashed in a book. He decided to bring them to his studio along with the others, and when he got them there, he laid them out in front of him. A flood of memories came back: "I got these flashbacks of who used to sell what and where, the dealers, the users, all the people, places and things from that time. I wondered whether the dealer or addict was dead, or had been arrested, some very visceral moments came back to me. It was a real jolt to my memory, as I had put that all in the past," Graham told me. The result of all this is All In: Buying int​o the Drug Trade, a book of images of the baggies that he collected over the course of his addiction.

I was speaking to him over the phone while he was visiting his parents in Scotland. He had a meeting with the National Portrait Gallery and a shoot in London; he's teaching at Parsons the New School for Design's Paris campus for the summer. He's killing it, but he's not afraid to admit that it hasn't always been this way.

During his addiction, Graham lost touch with family and friends. Acquaintances thought he'd disappeared, or died. "Being an addict was more work than having a full-time job, it consumed me every hour of the day and night there was no down time," Graham said. However, despite its intense grip on his life, he kept his artistic vision intact. He recently published carefully constructed self-portraits of his journey as an addict. 

"In some ways, my addiction fed my creativity and my creativity fed my addiction," Graham reflected. "There's a thin line between passion and obsession. I've always been very passionate about art, music, and photography. But when I fell into addiction, drugs became my obsession." 

As a result, Graham kept using but also kept photographing, documenting, and collecting the bags he bought.

"I didn't know what I'd do with them, but I was completely mesmerized by the designs, typography, and cultural references used in the marketing of the bags. I really wanted to keep them as a visual reference of that period, not even knowing if I'd get out of addiction."

The marketing behind heroin is powerful and works well. Just like wanting the best cup of coffee, or the best cellphone, people want the best heroin. "People will walk the extra mile," Graham told me. "They will walk on foot to wherever it is to get the best product.

"Certain brands like 'Ray' or 'Execute' were always quality and people would look far and wide for it.  One baggie of good stuff could last 12 hours; if you're buying shit stuff that's been cut too often then you need it every four hours or sometimes more. In general, 'good' drugs means it lasts longer so you spend less money, and there's less chance of getting arrested on the streets."

During those years Graham traveled all over New York to purchase heroin. He would go to people's homes or street corners in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and different parts of Manhattan--anywhere to find the best brands.

He also quickly understood that drug dealing was driven by greed. "Even though when something first came out of the market, it might have been really good, as time went on it'd get weaker," he said. "Right when you went to find a new dealer he'd come out with something new and say they had a new brand called 'Wake Up' or 'Money' or 'Highlife' or whatever, and it's essentially the same drug except it hadn't been cut and it had been re-packaged."

The brands of heroin in the book are only representation of heroin in New York,  as branding varies from coast to coast. The bags not only represent a time and a place, but also represent something that may be on the brink of disappearing. Graham recently heard that the DEA has been logging and tracking the brands of heroin so the federal agency can build a database of what's being sold where and focus their drug busts based on what drugs are being sold in specific areas.

"I am taking something that was destructive to me and repurposing it, making it fine art," Graham said. "I think it has its place as a comment on popular culture and what is going on in New York during those years."

Graham MacIndoe's book ​All In: Buying into the Drug Trade was recently published by Little Big Man Books. Order it ​he​re.

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