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Crowded shelves and melting skulls: why so many vape stores look the same

E-juice brands and the stores that carry them often share an overstocked, cartoonish nightmare aesthetic.

a man standing in vape shop with crowded shelves of e-liquid behind a glass counter
Shelves crowded with e-liquid is a common sight at vape shops.
Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Brian Allen, a freelance illustrator based in State College, Pennsylvania, has always worked for an eclectic range of clients, doing design and branding work for everyone from Harley-Davidson to the Philadelphia Flyers. But about six years ago, his work caught the eye of an industry that felt niche even to him. The Vaping Sisters, an e-cigarette company in Pensacola, Florida, reached out to him to design zombie-themed labels for its line of e-juice flavors.

E-juice, also known as e-liquid or vape juice, refers to the liquid substance — made up of nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerine, and flavorant — inside vaping devices. Today, 10.8 million Americans vape, according to a 2018 national survey published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. There are thousands of e-liquid flavors on the market, as well as a diversity of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), including hundreds of types of vape pens, mods, advanced personal vaporizers, and pod vapes. This has all turned out to be good news for Allen, who does not vape himself.

The look of Allen’s drawings, which he describes as “’80s, heavy metal, Ed Hardy, tattoo shop, loud,” resonated with the industry, he says. “So many people were hiring me to do just that. They didn’t say tone it down, or do this nice clean style.” For a few years, vaping clients made up the bulk of steady business for his graphic arts studio, Flyland Designs.

When you start to pay attention to the imagery associated with a certain subset of “vape lyfe” — the culture of the connoisseurs of e-juice, the Juul enthusiasts who hang out in the lounges or stream videos of vape trick masters and “cloud chasers” on YouTube — the aesthetic, from the store signage down to the brightly labeled glass bottles, is surprisingly consistent anarchy: the same boardwalk/strip mall vibe, with some ska/punk/hardcore elements and, at times, a nightmare cartoonishness. In fact, it calls to mind Allen’s arguably best-known work, which would come years later: Gritty, the beloved orange, googly-eyed, unhinged mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Vaping has grown in popularity since the mid-2000s, when the first generation of e-cigarettes — thin, sleek devices meant to look like cigarettes and literally called cig-a-likes — were introduced to the market as a smoking alternative and a harm reduction model. While e-cigs have proven effective at helping smokers quit traditional cigarettes, they’ve also hooked a younger generation, who are now more likely to try e-cigarettes than cigarettes, according to the National Institutes of Health. In particular, Juul, the Silicon Valley-born, sleek, USB-looking pod vape, which accounted for nearly 75 percent of e-cigarette sales in 2018, has lured the teens through its advertising and its selection of fruity flavors, leading the Food and Drug Administration to demand the company revise its marketing approach and restrict sales of flavored pods in stores.

Still, an aesthetic that might appeal to teen boys is the trend: loud, bold, and cartoonishly edgy. Philly’s SadBoy Vape Lounge, the brick-and-mortar location opened by the founders of SadBoy E-Liquid, displays its shop name in large yellow letters, with dripping, curly edges like fuzzy clouds, next to a graphic of a grinning skeleton inside a smiley-faced lemon — a blown-up version of the design on the e-juice bottles.

“We wanted it to look goth,” explains founder Eddie Myers. “A lot of the other e-liquid brands are colorful, or look like a bottle of wine. We wanted to stand out.” He says he opened the store to create a community space for Philly Vape Society, a Facebook group he started to organize events, like cloud contest and vape trick competitions, for local e-cig enthusiasts.

Dr. Robert Jackler, a professor of neuroscience and surgery at Stanford who has done extensive research on e-cigarette marketing, puts it plainly: “Packaging of vapor products lack subtlety,” he says. “They’re not terribly sophisticated — either very bright colors, which depict the sweet and fruity flavors within, or, a bunch of weird stuff, like smiling clowns, skulls, and unicorns.”

Zack Furness, an associate professor of communication at Penn State University and editor of Punkademics, an anthology of essays about the intersection of punk culture and academia, finds the aesthetic of e-liquids “odd,” comparing them to “Hot Topic, mall-emo, Juggalo” subcultures, rather than actual punk. He says, “It’s rebelliousness, but it’s cheeseball — a weird, amorphous signifier of teen rebellion.”

Despite the apparent dominance of pod-based vape pens like Juul, which earned $1 billion in revenue in 2018, mods are projected to be the fastest-growing segment in vaping products, according to a 2018 report by Grand View Research, a San Francisco-based market research and consulting company. Mods are larger, battery-operated vaping devices that allow users to refill them with any variety of e-liquid, which come in a wider range of flavors and nicotine levels than pods. And there’s seemingly no end to e-juice: Walk into any smoke shop, be it a lounge, suburban warehouse, or glorified bodega, and you’ll see glass cases packed with tiny glass bottles.

The overabundance of products might have to do with the fact that starting a vape company is easy and fairly cheap, according to Jackler: You just need to buy propylene glycol, glycerine, nicotine, and the flavorant chemical of your choice, then mix it, design labels, and print them on little bottles, he says. And printing a wacky, colorful label is one way to stand out. “Because there are so many purveyors of liquids, they’re all using their packaging to catch the eye of the consumer.”

There’s a technical aspect to the design choices too, according to Allen. “When you’re designing something for such a tiny thing — an e-juice label ends up being not even an inch tall — the graphics have to be with bold colors and thick line art, just to be able to print and show up,” he tells me, likening it to tattoos: “A lot of that artwork has to be bold and loud so it will stand out on skin.”

CBD e-juice on a San Francisco vape shop shelf.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Furness is unimpressed. “It strikes me that if I were way into the Insane Clown Posse, it would appeal to me, but it doesn’t.”

There may be something to that conceit. In a scene in director Joshua Gordon’s short film about the Insane Clown Posse’s annual Gathering of the Juggalos in Ohio, filmed for Nowness, a bearded man hits a mod and exhales it from behind a red-and-black face mask, to a voiceover saying, “Sip something sweet, and inhale deep. Now is the time for the souls of the dark carnival to gather.” A Reddit thread from three years ago asks “Juggalo Vapers” for advice on which vaping devices to bring to the Gathering that won’t get ruined by Faygo showers, an ICP tradition of spraying the crowd with the retro soft drink during concerts.

Gregory Snyder, a professor of sociology at Baruch College and author of Skateboarding LA: Professional Street Skating in Public Space, agrees that the aesthetic around vaping is a bit confused and corny, and may be a result of marketers “searching for a cool that they don’t know. Yes, it’s not up to date. ‘Hey, the kids love the mean clown. Hey, the kids love skulls.’”

And this attempt to create some sort of “prepackaged cool” often misses the mark.

“In the attempt to facilitate, create, and codify a subculture, it seems to me there are groups of people searching for ways to find the aesthetic accoutrements of their identity in a confused and fractured world,” he continues. “I’m not judging anyone’s shtick, but it’s kind of disturbing that you can get people to start a subculture around an addictive drug.”

Even though vaping is legal, it retains some of the counterculture aesthetic associated with the old-school, hippie-fried style popular in head shops, stores that sell smoking paraphernalia for tobacco but that’s also commonly associated with marijuana. This look persists now that cannabis is legal in many states, and even extends to smoke shops that only opened in recent years to cash in on the rise of vaping tobacco. It’s understood that plenty of clientele purchase vape pens to fill them with THC or CBD cartridges, and there is some research showing an overlap among adults who vape cannabis as well as tobacco.

A vape shop in San Francisco, shelves packed with e-liquid.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

While safer than cigarettes, e-cigarettes come with their own set of health concerns. Nicotine is extremely addictive, increases heart rate and blood pressure, and can have adverse effects on the developing adolescent brain, such as making young people more susceptible to developing other addictions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the aerosol vapor that users inhale doesn’t contain the tar or carbon monoxide found in cigarette smoke, many e-liquids contain a chemical called diacetyl, which, when heated, can damage the lungs. Moreover, there’s a risk that the propylene glycol and glycerine, when heated, can be converted into formaldehyde. Because e-cigarettes are so new, we lack sufficient data on their long-term effects on users.

Even if the best-sellers are Juul and mods, from a business perspective, “you can’t open a vape shop without accessories,” says Ahmed Ahmed, owner of the Vape N Cloud Smoke Shop in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. “To have everything under one roof is very good. You have to sell the other stuff.” He says there’s still enough customer demand to warrant lining the walls of his store with glass cases filled with cigars, bubblers, hookahs, rolling tobacco, rolling papers, and more.

The trashy, hardcore-lite vibe of e-juice calls to mind some small-batch hot sauce brands, which feature imagery of ghosts, skulls, and devils to match the searing, masochistic heat of whatever pepper’s inside. The difference is that e-liquid is notoriously sweet and fruity, like candy perfume. Legitimate health concerns aside, and despite whispers of popcorn lung and vape tongue, how hardcore can you really get about blowing clouds of cotton candy-flavored juice? When I jokingly ask Allen if he thinks Gritty would be a vaper, he laughs and says, “I bet he’d be into something much harder.”

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