The Art of the Potentially Deadly Deal: Marketing Heroin on the Street
The empty glassine packets can be found in Manhattan, Brooklyn and beyond, scattered on streets and sidewalks with only obscure slogans or graphic images to suggest their former use. At one time they contained heroin and the markings stamped on the packets were meant to differentiate strains of varying purity or provenance.
To some they are crime evidence. Addicts may see them mainly as a vehicle to fulfill a dangerous urge. For a group of artists who have been collecting them they are cultural artifacts that are equally unsettling and compelling.
On Wednesday a weeklong show called “Heroin Stamp Project” organized by seven members of the Social Art Collective is scheduled to open at the White Box Gallery on Broome Street on the Lower East Side. The show, which will include 150 packets picked off city streets, as well as 12 blown-up prints made from them, is meant to examine the intersection of advertising and addiction and provoke questions about how society addresses dependence and disease.
The origins of the show can be traced to 2001, when Pedro Mateu-Gelabert, a sociologist researching the relationship between H.I.V. and drug use, first glimpsed the packets in an empty building in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, where addicts would shoot up. Immediately, he said, he was struck by the fact that the images on the glassine envelopes served as advertisements.
“This was the marketing of heroin,” he said on a recent evening as he stood on a corner in Bushwick. “Even something so forbidden, so demonized, can be branded.”
He began collecting the packets and about six years ago he showed them to a friend, Liza Vadnai, who was taken by their combination of menace and fragile beauty. Joined by others, they continued gathering packets with the aim of organizing an exhibition.
Ms. Vadnai, who had counseled drug users in San Francisco before moving to New York, wanted to balance the presentation of the bags as art objects with some consciousness of the devastation caused by the powder they had once held.
“I felt the public health message had to be very clear,” she said as she walked with Mr. Mateu-Gelabert along a stretch of Troutman Street, where the artists had regularly searched for their raw material. “I wasn’t sure how to showcase them without it feeling exploitive.”
Just over 1,800 unstamped packets — the number a heavy heroin user might go through in a year, the show notes — will be arranged in rows on a wall in an effort to make the idea of addiction seem less abstract. Bags typically sell for about $10, Ms. Vadnai said, and may contain anywhere from 30 milligrams of heroin up to a tenth of a gram. Cards bearing facts about the health hazards of injection drug use will also be distributed at the show.
In addition, Ms. Vadnai, Mr. Mateu-Gelabert and their collaborators decided to give some of the show’s proceeds to the Lower East Side Center a counseling and needle-exchange organization near the gallery. The collective members said such an organization has more of an impact than groups that simply seek to get drug users to quit.
Heroin users donated some of the packets in the exhibition. Social Art Collective members found others near drug distribution spots and areas where addicts congregate. The artists found packets in the rugged streets of Bushwick and in Mott Haven in the Bronx, and in the gentrifying streets of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. They picked up packets near the stately brownstones that surround Gramercy Park, and inside Tompkins Square Park, where the trade flourished in the 1980s and into the 90s and still exists.
The stamps that identify the heroin inside draw on a wide range of references. There are names like White Fang, Time Bomb and Monster Power, which is decorated with an image of the grim reaper with a scythe. There are allusions to religion (Deadly Sin and the Last Temptation), crime (Notorious and Outlaw) and publishing (Life, in white capitals against a red background, and Daily News, along with the old camera logo of that tabloid). There is also a packet stamped with the words “Tango and Cash,” the name attached to a fentanyl-laced brand of heroin that infamously caused 12 fatal overdoses in one weekend in 1991.
Several heroin brands seem to dwell on the delicate balance of mortality that accompanies their use. Those include the Last Shot, Game Over, No Exit and No Pain, which is illustrated with a coffin and a cross.
“Many of them are metaphors,” Ms. Vadnai said. “They are saying that the heroin is so strong, so good, it might kill you.”
Mr. Mateu-Gelabert agreed, saying that such names and images were “playing with the edge between life and death.”
While collecting packets, the organizers also conducted a form of ethnographic research, speaking with dealers, users and runners, who serve as intermediaries in a drug sale. One member of the collective, Ashley Jordan, interviewed a man who designed and made rubber stamps that were used to place images on packets.
Those images may not be copyrighted but their creators still have highly
proprietary feelings. Earlier this year, Mr. Mateu-Gelabert said, a heroin dealer in Bushwick became upset that another man had appeared on his territory and copied his brand, Too Strong. The first dealer began distributing a new brand, called Shooters — one of those in the show — which featured two revolvers facing each other.
“It was really about sending a message to the dealer who was selling in his neighborhood on his block,” Mr. Mateu-Gelabert said. “It was to convey the message that if you continue messing with our market you will face the guns.”