While the first generation of vape shops aimed to be bars peddling e-juice in place of booze, a couple of recent arrivals have also aimed to double as art galleries. Could this finally do the unimaginable and make vaping cool? I hit a couple of these artsy aspirants to find out.
The City Council’s ban on vaping in public places created a need for communal spaces where e-cigarettes could be consumed, hence the rise of vape bars where you can buy and try the stuff. Here, vape clerks are essentially bartenders who guide you through sticky liquids of fruity, sweet, or coffee flavors (savory e-juice flavors aren’t as popular for some reason but they do exist: chicken n’ waffles, pizza, popcorn are all out there) and talk shop about coils, mods, tanks. While vaping does have a rebellious bent, it hasn’t been embraced by pop culture to the extent that cigarettes have. Tobacco is still the indisputably cooler cousin. In comparison, vaping just seems cheesy.
But places like Avant Garde Vapor Lounge are trying to change that. The shop, which opened up on the Lower East Side five months back, is dominated by huge, psychedelic paintings and there’s a long bar where, on a Thursday afternoon, several bored-looking skater types (all men, per usual) were hanging out, vaping away, and chatting. When I walked in, I had to do a double take to make sure there wasn’t a sign on the door that read “No unaccompanied women allowed.” Unfortunately this vibe is the norm for vape shops.
Half the time you walk into these places you get the feeling the people hanging around puffing away rarely stray far from MRM forums and World of Warcraft. That fedora they’re wearing is a sign that it’s a big day out for Jason.
Like its patrons, vape culture has a distinct attitude: a laid-back stoner vibe with a libertarian streak. Vape shops are usually plastered in half-assed campaigns to “Save Vaping in New York.” One flyer found at Henley, in Soho, read, “Help us fund a lobbyist, vape shops are under attack and could go out of business.” As we’ve reported, numerous new bills have been introduced in Albany that, in their view, at worst could result in the loss of “your right to vape all together.”
Though for obvious reasons vape advocates are resistant to most kinds of regulation, some of the resistance seems straight up dangerous. Manufacturers of e-juice, for example, are not required to list ingredients and every time I’ve asked a vape sales person to tell me what’s in this stuff, they shrug. Yes, there are a handful of companies out there dedicated to all-natural ingredients and the like, but given the lack of laws, you still have to take their word for it.
Scarier yet, a 2014 study released by the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco (an organization which, yes, sounds very shady but publishes a peer-reviewed journal through Oxford University Press and is supported by the FDA) found that up to 70 percent of sweet tasting e-cigarettes contain diacetyl, a dangerous chemical used in artificial butter flavoring which is safe to eat in small amounts but toxic when inhaled. Diacetyl causes a disease known as popcorn lung, an irreversible condition that resembles bronchitis. Yikes.
Harmless by comparison is vape culture’s unique aesthetic: one part Renaissance, one part psychedelic. The mostly men who work at the places are the grown up version of that disgruntled teenaged employee of a mall kiosk (you must be 21 or older to vape) and sprouted a fuller crop of unclassifiable facial hair. He’s perhaps worked at said vape emporium long enough to buy that Supreme hat he’s been eyeing, which looks just divine perched atop crisp white vans and black socks that hit at his calf.
His first paycheck of course was blown on a really tricked-out Tugboat Mod and he’s been fiddling with the homemade coils on this thing for weeks, but nearly has it to full-blown torch capacity. In the meantime you better believe this thing is still making monster clouds.
While the aforementioned Henley shop isn’t completely free of this vibe (see the Bitcoin ATM), it’s certainly trying to buck the trend. While there weren’t exactly throngs of women patronizing this place, it felt a little more welcoming to at least one. And while there was a fair amount of nerding out about mods and flavors and whatever over the reclaimed wood bar, there was also plenty of space to escape that sometimes oppressive banter.
Henley has a massive, green backyard complete with a grill and plenty of seating, something rarely seen in Manhattan. The inside was miles more sophisticated than most vape shops I’ve seen: designer furniture from a shop in Red Hook sat atop a red poured concrete floor. And for once, the art wasn’t horrible. Though black-and-white photographs of people puffing enormous vape clouds isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff, it’s much less offensive than handing some 13-year-old boy who just discovered marijuana a paint brush and telling him to go at it. But overall the shop feels open, airy, well-designed, and above all comfortable.
Henley is even hosting a monthly art event of sorts that will be ongoing until October. The Secret Garden Series is curated by artist and DJ Kimyon Huggins and will feature the work of two artists every month through October. He’s chosen locally-based street artists who hail from all over the world to paint a wall located in the backyard at Henley. This month’s mural, a baby blue, black-and-white wash of scribbled faces, was painted by NDA. Apparently Henley has given the artists pretty much free reign and Huggins told us that he expects the next two artists, GILF and Ivan Orama to engage with politically themed pieces.
Vape shops, even Henley, still have a long way to go before they feel accessible to everyone. There were many reasons why vaping didn’t work for me and why I lost interest, but one factor was that I was embarrassed to vape given all of these associations. But vaping isn’t just suffering from an image problem, it’s also at a crossroads in terms of legality.
Blanket opposition to any regulation is probably not very wise, because with better knowledge about the ingredients, more people might feel welcome. But even that is a sticky aim, because one thing that vaping succeeds at is disassociating itself from tobacco and thus unraveling itself from immediate associations with lung cancer. And as of yet, we all need to admit, vape shop owners especially, that it remains to be seen what kinds of adverse health effects will emerge from vaping. And maybe this lack of acknowledgement and accountability is why vaping is still an adolescent boy.