Los Angeles

Pot Shots: Ryan Mungia Rolls Up an Architectural Vernacular of Camouflage

pot shops cheller

We've all seen them -- some of us being, let's just say, more on the lookout than others. They've cropped up, if you'll pardon the pun, all across the city. I'm speaking of course of medical marijuana dispensaries; and in the past few years, they've become so ubiquitous in our urban landscape that they are becoming the subject of books, art exhibitions, photography and policy blogs, and now, their own proper architectural treatise. To make Pot Shots, Ryan Mungia, a professional researcher with a flair for noticing things, recruited the very best possible expert to help with both words and pictures -- Jim Heimann, celebrated editor of the monumental TASCHEN piece, Los Angeles: Portrait of a City and Creative Director of TASCHEN America, a man who loves the least ostentatious, but often most emblematic, architectural quirks of the L.A. sprawl.

Look, I'm not in a position to say for sure whether I think they were or were not high as kites, either when they thought of it or later when they actually did it, but the "Screw it, let's just get in the car and go for it" attitude seems common to many a pipe dream I've witnessed. I can see it now: "Dude, dude, dude! [deep inhale] Check it out, check it out! How weird is it that all these pot stores are trying so hard to blend in with the donut shops, but we can still spot them a mile away. What's that about, right? [deep inhale]. We should make a book, we totally should. Dude! We'll call it 'Pot Shots'! [hysterical laughter; coughing]." But (notably unlike stereotypical stoners) they diligently followed through on their crazy idea, and it worked. And, most importantly they've made some good points -- points that resonate more with design nerds than hop heads, speaking the proper language of civic planning, not reggae night.

From <em>Pot Shots</em> | Photo: Ryan Mungia and Jim Heimann.

From <em>Pot Shots</em> | Photo: Ryan Mungia and Jim Heimann.

At about 30 pages, containing 35 images and a very manageable amount of quasi-academic words, Pot Shots is short but salient like an old-school 'zine, albeit one of the cleanest and prettiest I've seen. It's a serious bit of street level citizen reportage, in which a pair of sincere professionals give their combined attention to an emerging area of study. But it's also undeniably an example of digital-era DIY publishing -- and in that sense it is heir to the 'zine genre associated with all the best counter-cultures, like skaters, punk bands, and tattoo art. It was made surreptitiously, seemingly on a whim, shot entirely on iPhones from the car -- itself a very L.A.-specific kind of journalism since, as everyone knows and as Heimann himself previously pointed out in the Los Angeles book, that's how most Angelenos experience the city.

Vernacular speech is a language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people in a particular country or region. Vernacular architecture is similarly based on localized needs and readily available construction materials, and reflecting local traditions as well as environmental, cultural, technological, and historical context. It is frequently dismissed as crude and unrefined, but like its cousin Outsider Art, also has champions who highlight its importance in the history of design. The vernacular these dispensaries practice is more like Zelig chameleonism. Deep, right? It gets deeper still, as Heimann points out, as this class of business which seeks to blend in rather than stand out (as retail conventions mostly dictate doing) is the very epitome of hyper-local. A raggedy hand-painted sign would stick out like a spaceship on a posh stretch of Santa Monica Blvd or Abbot Kinney -- blending in there means looking like a health food cafe. So in the end, this 'zine about pot culture is really a study of how our city's economic diversity drives its aesthetic diversity.

From <em>Pot Shots</em> | Photo: Ryan Mungia and Jim Heimann.

From <em>Pot Shots</em> | Photo: Ryan Mungia and Jim Heimann.

Subversive chronicle, civic treatise, amateur photojournalism, indie culture gesture, it still makes sense as an art object in the same physical and conceptual way that Ed Ruscha's famous 1966 photography book Every Building on the Sunset Strip made sense as art. In its simply formatted photo-documentation, it avoids constructing anything mannerist or interpretive, choosing instead to just presenting the facts and let the weirdness of those facts speak for itself. The real, reserved artistry, as with Ruscha, comes in the choosing of a subject. In choosing to explore and explain something -- the architecture of the marijuana industry -- that is actively trying to stay under the radar for the most part, leads them to interpret a strategy of invisibility as if it were an aesthetic expression, which of course, it is. An aesthetic strategy for survival in a constantly shifting legal and cultural landscape of paranoia and progressivism.

"The split nature of how marijuana sales are viewed by the government is pushing many pot dispensaries to try and blend in with the streetscape in order to avoid attention. For many collectives, a hide-in-plain-sight mentality reigns -- and it makes sense. Often these mysterious storefronts are identified solely by a ubiquitous green cross, so that only those in the know get the secret iconography." It's strikingly resonant with Prohibition-era architectural contortions, as their criminal status has been forced on them; but they also benefit from a vibrant, dedicated subculture. (The L.A. Weekly even has a whole sub-site dedicated to a complete directory of stores and a news blog on the subject.) Interestingly, getting medical exemptions was how people used to get their liquor back in the day, too. And all of this functional conflictedness is reflected in the architecture and graphic design, with occasional flare-ups of exuberance. How does one go about branding a decentralized culture? One mainly repurposes other harmless-looking storefronts, one hides the THC truth in puns, one camouflages oneself enough to deflect the attention of the anti-reefer police while still being locatable by customers -- and also being ever so slightly proud of themselves and fabulous.

From <em>Pot Shots</em> | Photo: Ryan Mungia and Jim Heimann.

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Top Image: From Pot Shots | Photo: Ryan Mungia and Jim Heimann.

About the Author

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles.
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