Okay yeah, litter is a bummer and the bags themselves aren’t great for the environment, but I can’t help it. Every time I walk past a mylar bag lying on the street I stop to check it out, kicking it around and flipping it over against the cracks in the sidewalk until I can see the art, the strain name, the branding, and every word of text. As cannabis and the cannabis community mesh further into the fabric of American life, the mylar bag has quickly become the artistic bellwether for the industry, pushing creativity, trends, and creating a lasting record of the culture akin to skateboard graphics, album covers, craft beer labels and countless other visual staples of counterculture scenes.
Existing both in concert and completely separate from the weed inside, graphic bags have hit all the early hallmarks of subculture evolution, creating a design language that extends past the cannabis community into its own distinct style of art complete with moral panic, bootleggers and copycats, regional intricacies, and iconic standouts.
The intersection of commerce and counterculture is always contentious, no matter how niche, and while the artistic merits of each particular bag are certainly up to personal interpretation, it is already clear that graphic bags have reshaped the world of weed at damn near every level.
Evolving from RX labels scribbled with a strain name and stuck to black, silver, or plastic windowed bags in California’s pre-recreational medical market, as soon as cannabis sellers turned into cannabis companies the open space on the front of every bag became a billboard for branding and expression, setting strains and sellers apart on dispensary shelves and black market menus.
Fueled by an influx of legalization laws, increased competition amongst distributors, a flood of flower, and tons of custom print shops and pre-printed bags a Google search away, graphic bags grew from the domain of top-shelf brands and exclusive suppliers to a ubiquitous facet of the regulated and unregulated markets. In 2020, with pack prices high, traditional businesses on hold, hustlers and smokers flush with extra pandemic unemployment funds put the bag game into overdrive, turning branded bud into a status symbol, with dye-cut shapes, holographic printing, and wilder subject matter – the more outlandish the bag, the more clout on social media, the faster it flies out of dispensaries and backpacks alike.
Just like limited-edition Nikes and Supreme t-shirts, the exclusive aesthetics were immediately bootlegged, with overseas printers churning out cheap knockoffs of every popular brand and bag under the sun, turning downtown L.A. into Canal Street for trappers, with blocks of storefronts dedicated to fake packaging. It might piss off brand owners, but for the culture as a whole the bootleg obsession is a mark of legitimacy to be proud of.
Outside the culture, cannabis bag art has become a convenient boogyman for prohibitionists, who argue that cartoon characters and bubble letters appeal to kids. Disregarding decades of rated R (or worse) animation holding a significant place in pop culture, a number of legal markets have sided with the prohibitionists on the limits of adult artistic expression, strictly restricting bag designs.
But if the past is any indicator, loud, newsworthy, and eventually unsuccessful protests against rap, metal, controversial movies back to Elvis’ hip shaking and countless other moral outrages aimed at saving kids from deviant art, the long-term odds are in our favor. Besides, you can’t ban cartoon art or bubble letters on the black market, no matter how sick of red eye Rick & Morty we all are.
Like the culture’s cousins in skateboarding, graffiti, and streetwear, the design language that dominates bag art from seshes to sidewalks is highly referential, drenched in parody, nostalgic, psychedelic, obsessed with local flavor, global ambitions, and luxury aspirations.
Be it licensed collaborations with superstar athletes like Cookies’ Gary Payton and 33 by Backpack Boyz, a very unofficial dye-cut Supreme Air Force One sneaker by Shiest Bubz and The Smoker’s Club, a genre-defining run by Jokes Up culminating in the, um, unique, Coochie Runtz bag, hyper-local creations like Chopped Cheese by Buddy’s Bodega, all the way to dime bags printed with hastily photoshopped collages of The Joker, graphic bags are an amalgamation of every corner of cannabis culture, highbrow to lowbrow, political to patronizing, original to bootleg, calligraphy to cartoon and everywhere in between. At the end of the day, seeing a graphic weed bag on the sidewalk – an unavoidable happenstance walking through any American city these days – is saying the same thing – weed is here, weed is everywhere, and you’re gonna see it.
Because bags can be designed and produced so quickly, mylar art is constantly rotating and reacting at the pace of our collective attention span, with print houses like Sticker Farmer dropping new bags memorializing every Academy Awards slap, viral challenge, and athlete, celebrity, or politician to be “turned into a pack,” all dropping days if not hours after the event itself.
The evolution of bag graphics is still in its early stages, and if cannabis giants, small brands, and local trappers continue to put significant creative effort and funding into creating the next bag to set their strains apart, go viral on IG stories, and sell out on menus, weed bags are going to continue to solidify a place in the pantheon of modern art.
I have high hopes, but for the medium to really stick, it is time to start giving respect to the artists and graphic designers behind the bags. Brands, start tagging the artists more frequently on posts, put a signature on the back of the bag, sponsor and host art shows. Smokers, if you like a bag seek out the artist, give them a follow on IG and see if they have any pieces for sale – anything you can do to continue pushing their art as a core facet of the industry and culture.
The possibilities for bag art are endless going forward and I can’t wait to see what’s next.