STORIES

John de Fazio Crafts the Coolest Bongs Ever

By David Jenison on June 12, 2018

The artist who helped create the visual universe for Pee-wee's Playhouse crafts '70s-inspired kitsch bongs. Let that amazingness sink in for a moment. John de Fazio exclusively exhibits his water-pipe works in galleries, and he's been doing it for decades, which makes him an unsung hero and leader in elevating cannabis-themed visuals. 

"My bongs are first and foremost works of art that reflect popular culture by using the format of ceramic pipes," says de Fazio, whose pop-culture bongs are on display at the Guerrero Gallery in San Francisco through June 2. "They are multi-functional, using traditional design principles of clay smoking vessels from a 2,000-year global history as fetish objects. Each one is unique, handcrafted and painted lavishly with layers of glaze and metallic lusters."

Looking back, one must wonder what Upper East Side art snobs thought in 2001 when both the New York Times and the New Yorker praised his Starbong exhibit, but de Fazio claims a progressive artistic mindset that put him on the visual forefront many years before that. Among his many commercial works, he was the set dresser for Guns 'n' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" and crafted several items for MTV, where he served as the network's art consultant from 1990 to 1996. 

The San Francisco-based artist, whose bongs include tributes to Ren & Stimpy and Beavis & Butthead, spoke with PRØHBTD about cannabis branding, smoking out Trump on an Obama bong and what it was like to strap Axl Rose into a straitjacket. 

Your ceramic bongs at the Guerrero Gallery show included Spock, R2-D2 and E.T. Any particular reason you went with so many space themes? 

Sci-fi opened up the hero archetype to include biracial Vulcans, loyal robots and homesick aliens. These cinematic characters came off the screen and into our homes in 3D as plastic toys, ceramic figurines and bed sheets. I wanted to repurpose these 1980s artifacts into bongs that would be instant triggers to the imagination of space cadets.

If you could force any right winger to take a hit out of your Obama Bong, who would it be and why? 

I wouldn't force anyone, but [I would] suggest that The Donald inhale a big lungful of Pineapple Jack from the Obama Bong to transport him into a headspace where greed and power are replaced with generosity and compassion for Mother Earth and all her peoples, rich or poor.

Well put. What would happen if you tried to sell your Liberty Bell Bong at a Trump rally? 

Well, I'll gamble that there are quite a few closet tokers at a Trump rally… for medical purposes at the very least. One of my first jobs after high school was working in a ceramic kitsch factory in Philadelphia during the Bicentennial in 1976. I was on the production line casting souvenirs of Ben Franklin's monster face and Betsy Ross flagging in a rocking chair. The Liberty Bell really is inscribed with the words "Pass & Stow," which seemed perfect for a bong, so I added a bowl and a flag-draped pipe for my personal version. The Liberty Bell is such a great symbol of America, forged from melted down pots and pans in a DIY spirit. It sounded an alarm to the Revolutionary War and announced Independence Day so jubilantly that the bell cracked. Cause and effect. The cracked bell symbolizes freedom.

The ceramic bongs are just one aspect of your extensive art portfolio. Sticking with the ceramics, you have pieces that merge pop culture and classic mythology. What parallels do you often highlight between the two? 

Ceramic vase paintings from thousands of years ago survived as storyboard panels of the psychodramas between the Greek gods on Mount Olympus. That set up a formal style of visual narrative that enabled artists to depict the psychological relationships between supernatural characters and heroic humans. Old-school pop stars like Elvis, Madonna, Prince, Mr. T, Darth Vader and even Beavis and Butthead could be swapped out in a myth [like] The Ancients. Astrological imagery also appears in much of my work as a visual language, expressing 12 hybrid character types ruled by the alignment of the stars, which still has influential power in the digital age.

You were part of the art scenes in San Francisco and Greenwich Village at historically important times. How did the scenes differ, and what is the important influence you took away from each? 

I first moved to San Francisco from Philly in 1982 to explore the remnants of the Haight-Ashbury scene. My childhood dream was to become a psychedelic artist, and this was the fountainhead. Head shops still sold Victor Moscoso and the Fillmore posters and Zap Comix with R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson and Robert Williams. There was a Jimi Hendrix church that had a life-size wax figure of Jimi in a flamboyant costume playing guitar, spinning on a room-sized turntable, with a soundtrack blaring "Purple Haze" with flashing lights. The Bay Area ceramic art scene was having an academic renaissance with Robert Arneson, Peter Voulkos, Viola Frey, Ron Nagle and my teacher Richard Shaw. This was also the period after Harvey Milk's murder and the beginning of the AIDS crisis, which decimated but ultimately galvanized the LGBT community with political art and protest marches. 

When I moved to NYC in 1985, the East Village was the hot art scene where young artists just out of college were moving into the downtown ghetto and opening up galleries in the cheap storefronts. This seemed to be the last democratic art movement allowing pure talent and hard work to gain visibility within a short period of time, stealing the spotlight from the uptown galleries. My rat-infested studio in the Bowery was just part of the "rites of passage" that generations of poets and artists endured. New York makes you tough and trains you [on] how to roll with the punches. 

You created sets and toys for Pee-wee's Playhouse. What would be examples of psychedelic elements you contributed to the show through your artwork? 

When I was first hired, I worked on the opening sequence: whittling the "Pee-wee's Playhouse" sign nailed to a fake tree which the animated beaver chews through. Then my sculpting ability was put to use [in] creating the miniature cave set for the dinosaur family that lived inside the wall—striated stalactites and stalagmites in Sculpey with matching StoneAge furniture, TVs and vacuum cleaners, etc. Then I built the freezer set with cast resin icicles and ice frosted stages for the animated food sequences with dancing egg rolls and french fries. I saw an episode on Adult Swim decades later and flashbacked to the week I cast clear plastic ice cubes, attached wire arms and legs and sculpted a dozen pairs of miniature platform shoes for a dance sequence. 

My largest contribution was creating the Mutant Toys for the stop-motion animated segments. The main characters were Little Frankenstein Girl, Octo-Dog, Helicopter Girl, Cowboy/Ballerina Tricycle and a pull train with Giant Eyeball, Daisy Face, Laughing Skull and Snapping Alligator. After receiving complaints from a few parents that the toys created nightmares for their youngsters, the Mutant Toys were discontinued in season two. (See an example of the Mutant Toys in the image above.)

When you worked on the "Welcome to the Jungle" video, you got to put Axl Rose in a straitjacket. Did you feel conflicted about letting him out of it?

That's funny! My job description was "set dresser," and Axl was the centerpiece in a reenactment of the shock therapy scene from [Stanley] Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. I found an old mint-green dentist's chair in Pasadena that served the purpose of a mad scientist's torture chair—it weighed a ton—and mounted it on a stack of metal grates to elevate itfor the camera angles. The welder on set was wearing shorts, and he bumped into a sharp metal edge and cut his shin down to the bone, spouting blood all over. We quickly patched his wound with duct tape and sent him to the ER. This was five minutes before Axl was to shoot his scene. 

I was terrified that Axl would trip climbing into the chair and plunge into the razor sharp steps, slashing his perfect face into ribbons. He arrived on set bare-chested with fresh tattoos on his lily-white skin and tight leather pants, looking like a sacrificial lamb. The straitjacket was made of stiff coarse material, rented from a costume shop. It took a few minutes for us to figure out the straps and how to tie his hands behind his back without dislocating his shoulders. Axl was a trooper acting out psychic pain, flailing his bondaged body in the chair with hot stage lights frying him for hours. When the shoot was over and we untied Axl from the straitjacket, his skin was bright red from an itchy rash. He truly suffered for his art and fame, so I gotta give him props.

Over three months, you crafted a psychedelic mural for MTV that went behind Daisy Fuentes and Bill Bellamy. Was there anything about the VJs themselves that would make you think psychedelia? 

Not at all. They both had squeaky clean personas. Daisy was MTV's first Latina VJ and drop dead gorgeous, exuding a healthy aerobics lifestyle. Bill was a brilliant young comic with full control of every facial muscle, [showcased] in asymmetrical eyebrow raises and sly smiles while trying to inject humor into the mundane task of announcing the 10th week of Whitney's "I Have Nothing" number-one video. They had to break the color barrier by charming their way into Middle America's living rooms in their roles as VJs who were hip but not edgy. 

My role was to paint a psychedelic mural in the background of the set which the cameramen could roll up to for close-ups, serving as transition shots between the videos. I designed a two-panel animated landscape in a cubist cartoon style, which was brought to life in stages from a pencil sketch to a technicolor mural over the season. During breaks, I exited stage door left—which led to an outdoor loading dock—and I would light up a joint for inspiration. It was weeks before I noticed two security cameras pointed my way, so I must have been entertaining the security guards with my attempt to be on the "down low"! I worked for MTV as an artist for six years, so apparently it wasn't an issue. 

You are an adjunct professor at the San Francisco Art Institute and the California College of the Arts. How are your ceramic bongs received by the students and the school administrators? 

I was fortunate to win a highly competitive National Endowment of the Arts grant early in my career, which helped me establish the credentials to teach at five universities over the decades, including NYU and UC Berkeley. When I met a juror on the NEA panel that year, he told [me that] my work was the weirdest, but [showed] the highest level of craftsmanship, and we both nodded. That’s my M.O.

I invested a great deal of energy to focus on establishing a paper trail of respectability in an art context for this contraband bong form. Photos of my works were included in dozens of ceramic books, magazines and catalogues. I think this body of evidence has assuaged any fears from school administrators. As for the students, they appreciate my small groundbreaking efforts on their behalf. 

Cannabis culture has a long list of aesthetic symbols, such as the pot leaf. How can these symbols be transformed into a cool type of kitsch? 

I love all the pot leaf symbols. It's as recognizable as the maple leaf on the Canadian flag. 

Pot leaf kitsch runs the gamut from cheap jewelry, pot holders for the stove, flip-flops for the beach, to gold-plated Cannabis Cup awards. Well, since it still has to target the 21+ [age group], it can get a little sexier. San Francisco has a variety of cannabis dispensaries, each with a target audience: There is a steampunk dab bar, sleek minimalist boutiques, Jamaican-themed lounges blaring reggae. There is even a super-store with aisles of edibles, teas, lotions and hemp products like a Trader Joe's. When you walk in, they insist you take a wire basket to normalize your shopping experience. But all I wanted was a little pre-rolled Green Candy. 

What recommendations would you make for the cannabis industry to elevate its overall aesthetic? 

Aesthetic styles change with the times and the demographics. Here in America, 50 years later, we still have loyalty to the Summer of Love iconography associated with the counterculture youth movement. Tie dye, rainbows, hearts and flowers… these had global recognition as something joyful, reproduced in rock 'n' roll album covers and poster art. Much of this referenced Art Nouveau graphics from the 1890s, which merged beautiful people with flowing hair enveloped by plant forms. As marijuana culture comes out of the closet, it should embrace more international cultures that have benefited from the power of this plant as part of its history. A metaphysical melting pot. 

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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