The artists in "Degenerate Art," the same name the Nazis used to describe modern art, are quick to say that they don’t make crack pipes. They make art, they insist — art that some people might just so happen to use for illegal purposes. Even so, many, including Slinger, don’t use their real names because they are worried about the legal implications of how they make a living.
In fact, a good portion of the doc focuses on Operation Pipedream, a Drug Enforcement Administration sting that took down makers of drug paraphernalia, including legendary toker/actor Tommy Chong. The owners of these companies talk about how they followed the letter of the law when it came to their businesses. Yet the DEA was prosecuting them for the crimes that the future owners of their products would commit. "You don’t see anyone arresting the gun manufacturer for someone killing a person with their guns," Slinger said.
At one point, an artist who calls himself Banjo asks, "How long do you think it’s going to be until none of this is anything we’ve got to worry about getting filmed?"
This legal gray area surrounding pipe-making is why Slinger picked up his camera in the first place. "I was depressed; I had been blowing glass for 10 years, and I was never going to be able to make real money without someone taking my dream away," Slinger said. "It gives these people a voice. Film is the most powerful medium, and it’s propaganda. When you say, ‘I make glass pipes,’ people don’t take it seriously. They think you’re a lazy stoner. They have no idea what I’m a part of. "
Slinger doesn’t focus the lens on himself, even though he’s something of a star in the glassblower subculture. "People will drive two or 300 miles to buy a piece from him. I never knew there was that brand commitment," said Andrew Stechman, owner of South Philly’s Glass on Glass, who knows Slinger only professionally. "He’s been doing it for a while, and his style is so different. He actually does sculpture. Guys like him don’t make something with a couple swirls and flower."
Slinger grew up in Long Island. He started making pipes after college, while working at a restaurant, and was able to quit his day job a couple of months later. So, how did he tell his parents how he was putting his college degree to use? "I was pretty honest with my parents," Slinger said. "They didn’t take it too seriously, but I never asked them for money and I was paying my bills, and they were happy for me for that."
"We blow glass because it’s freedom," said Slinger, whose younger brother also blows glass.
He bounced around the West Coast, but missed the East. New York was too expensive, so he chose Philadelphia. Slinger isn’t the only glassblower in town (see sidebar). "There totally is a Philly scene. It was really strong two or three years ago, but the major players moved because they, like, wanted better weather," Slinger said. "We all crewed up and had some shop spaces together and really put Philly on the map. People still know about Philly."
"Degenerate Art" makes the point that the work of these artists wouldn’t be under scrutiny without a piece’s … uh … functional aspects.
At a glass competition, Slinger met a Philly-born and -bred artist who now calls himself JAG, or Just Another Glassblower, who had been making pipes since he was 19, but quit to go legit. He opened a glassblowing spot on 3rd and Poplar, called Philly Glass Works. But it wasn’t working. "Basically, I just became a broke," JAG said. "The only thing that gave me enough to pay my bills was making pipes."
Slinger has also thought about going legit, and got his name from his former affinity for making glass marbles. "Galleries want my pieces on consignment, and when they pay me, it’s a month or two later," Slinger said. "But when I go to the head shop, the guy opens up the register and hands me a stack of twenties."
Slinger sells his work for $150 to $2,000. JAG, now living in San Diego, sells pipes anywhere from $50 to $8,000.
Stechman sees pieces that sell for a high (sorry) price as status symbols. "If you want people to come to your house and enjoy your smoking experience, you can get a decent pipe," Stechman said. "But if you want to impress someone, you pull out something special." He says that half the people who buy the more expensive, artist-made pieces are hustlers and that the other half are professionals, like doctors or lawyers, pulling up to his shop in BMWs.
But JAG sees his collector base differently. "We’ve grown up with our collectors, and these people are getting older and making more money," he said. "It’s more of an investment, just like any other successful artist. If an art collector is buying art, they love it and it’s because they’re investing in artist’s career." n
The Trocadero Theatre, 1003 Arch St., 8 p.m. Tuesday, $10, 215-922-6888, theawesomefest.com.
Contact Molly Eichel at 215-854-5909 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @mollyeichel. Read her blog posts at philly.com/entertainment.