The Sober Aesthetics of Pot Shops

A new book documents what L.A.'s medical-marijuana dispensary scene looks like.

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Medical-marijuana dispensaries have become big business in the time since California voters legalized them, but that doesn't mean that pot shops operate completely in the light of day. The federal government has shut down hundreds of dispensaries in the last year alone, and local lawmakers have passed countless ordinances to keep the shops out of their towns.

"The shops have to walk a fine line between keeping a low profile and putting forth an image that will stand out just enough to attract customers "

What do stores whose owners live under threat of prosecution look like? Documentarians Jim Heimann, creative director for Taschen America, and Ryan Mungia, a researcher, set out to answer that question. The result is Pot Shots, a photographic record of the Los Angeles storefronts where medical cannabis is being sold (published by Mungia's Boyo Press). Heimann and Mungia have done for L.A.'s marijuana emporiums what artist Ed Ruscha did for the city's gas stations in his 1963 book Twentysix Gasoline Stations: highlight the previous unnoticed aesthetics of a ubiquitous feature of the Californian urban landscape.

The images are sobering. Forget the fantasy that once pot was legalized it would be sold in exquisitely designed, new-age, hipster head shops. The reality is that most pot stores are like any other retail façade, and most fade into their surroundings for a very good reason: The owners want to avoid bringing undue attention from the federal government, which, in fact, is currently sending letters to operators, landlords and local officials, warning of criminal charges and the seizure of assets.

There are no standards for how these places should look. "The [visual] message is more subtle because the shops have to walk a fine line between keeping a low profile by blending with their environment on the one hand and putting forth an image that will stand out just enough to attract customers on the other," Mungia says.

One of the storefronts featured in Pot Shots bears a colorful graffiti logo of a stoned-looking octopus on their facade, which suggests a certain degree of cool. Just down the block, though, there's a muted gray-green building with no signs at all, just a valet stand out front. The only indication that it is a pot dispensary is the green cross on their doorway. That kind of understatedness is meant "to attract an upscale client," Mungia says, "that wants to be discreet and feel safe." Some of the shop names are mildly clever ("WEEDeliver," "Euphanasia"), some are more vague ("District Collective"), and some sound like vitamin stores ("Natural Way of L.A.," "Organics"). "However, once you are aware of them, they start to have these really wonderful personalities," Mungia says.

The interiors vary widely, too. One of them is prison-like, with an anteroom sectioned off by iron gates and an armed guard stationed beside the reception desk. Another has a plush waiting room that could be mistaken for a typical dentist's office if not for the aroma. "I even visited one decorated like a dorm room with Bob Marley and Cheech and Chong posters on the wall," Mungia says.

Taking the photographs for Pot Shots required quick wits and agility. Heimann and Mungia adopted a hit-and-run strategy: "Drive up, pull out the iPhone, wait until traffic dissipates, shoot the picture, then drive off," Mungia says. "The security guards in front could be indifferent or aggressive, but most are not thrilled with cameras pointing their way." During one such attempt, a gun-toting guard demanded to know what the two were doing—and then pulled out his own iPhone and took photos of their car. What this seems to show is that whether legal or illegal, sold from legitimate storefronts or on the street, one thing about the marijuana experience may never change: the paranoia.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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